Despite spirited objection from one of its members, the Board of Airport Commissioners voted Tuesday to approve a slate of projects to modernize Los Angeles International Airport, the most contentious of which would move the airport's northernmost runway 260 feet closer to homes and businesses.
Commissioner Valeria Velasco, whose Playa del Rey home is close to the airport, pleaded with her colleagues not to move the runway, saying it could bring more noise and pollution into nearby communities without improving safety or operational efficiency.
But six of the seven commission members disagreed, voting in support of the configuration change, which airport staff had argued was necessary to promote safer, more streamlined airplane landings.
"I know it's a very contentious issue," Los Angeles World Airports Executive Director Gina Marie Lindsey said following the meeting. "I am happy with this as a reasonable compromise that balances community needs with the needs of the airport."
The vote, which was largely expected, does not end the process. The Los Angeles City Council, city Planning Commission and Los Angeles County Airport Land Use Commission will now review the proposal. It must also be cleared by federal authorities, including the Federal Aviation Administration.
Meanwhile, a Westchester community group has threatened to file a lawsuit to derail the runway project on the grounds that the airport has not followed state environmental laws.
In all, the projects approved by the board could cost nearly $4.8 billion and would be slated for completion within about 15 years, according to information provided by airport officials. The projects include an automated people mover that would shuttle passengers around the airport, an intermodal transportation hub and a consolidated rental car facility. (Airport officials caution their estimates are rough, as each project will need to be studied individually, and some community members said in public comments that the actual costs could be considerably higher.)
Velasco said she likes the ground transportation portions of the modernization plans, but she rejected the entire proposal when the board declined to separate the process into two pieces.
Velasco, like many community members who spoke during the meeting, said she is concerned airport officials will focus their efforts on the runway separation and never actually build the ground transportation projects. Airport officials say they have no timetable for when construction might begin on the ground transportation modernization.
The runway change could come sooner. Airport officials have long said they have felt pressure from the FAA to move their runways apart. Two parallel runways on the airport's north side are now considerably closer than federal guidelines usually permit, which requires controllers to take unusual steps when some large airplanes use them. In 2008, LAX moved apart two runways on the airport's south side, which airport officials say has greatly improved safety.
Opponents of this runway separation plan cite a study by NASA Ames Research Center and an academic panel that found the risk of two planes colliding on the ground is low under both the current and proposed new north-side configuration.
But several members of the board said that they felt compelled to vote for any measure that could improve safety, saying they wanted to do whatever they could to lessen the possibility of catastrophe.
"I had a debate with myself," said Commissioner Joseph A. Aredas, an organized labor official. "I don't want to be in that position five years from now, if an accident occurs, thinking that I made the wrong decision."
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