U.S. Reps to FAA: make up your administrative mind

A few weeks ago U.S. Representatives Ted Lieu and Karen Bass organized a meeting in Washington where Santa Monica officials and local residents could express their grievances about Santa Monica Airport to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials. The meeting had no concrete effect because the FAA had declared ahead of time that its representatives would not respond to anything that was said there, but the meeting did result in Reps. Lieu and Bass promising to press the FAA to issue an overdue decision in an administrative proceeding brought against the City by the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) and other aviation interests.

By way of background, the case Lieu and Bass referred to involves a grant of money Santa Monica received from the FAA for airport upgrades under a contract entered into in 1994. The contract obligated the City to assure continued operation of the airport, but for no longer than 20 years, i.e., the City’s obligations under the contract would terminate no later than 2014. This is important because the City was not going to accept any money from the FAA that would tie the City’s hands beyond the expiration of another agreement with the FAA, from 1984, that required the City to operate the airport only to July 1, 2015. (The City’s obligations under the 1994 contract are often referred to as “grant assurances,” and the case is often referred to as the “grant assurances case.”)

In 2003 the 1994 contract was amended to increase the amount of the FAA’s grant by about $240,000 because work contemplated in the 1994 agreement proved to be more expensive than anticipated. The amendment, however, left the remaining terms of the contract, including its 2014 expiration date, unchanged. Nonetheless, last year the NBAA was the lead plaintiff in an FAA administrative law proceeding demanding that the FAA tell the City that it was bound, because of the 2003 amendment, to keep the airport operating until 2023, i.e., 20 years after the increase in the grant.

For months now the grant assurances case has been fully briefed. The delay maintains the status quo at the airport, which must please the aviation parties who brought the action. Santa Monica wants a decision. Any decision (for reasons I’ll discuss below).

Last week Lieu and Bass acted on their promise and sent a letter to the FAA that not only asked the agency to make up its administrative mind, but also forcefully expressed the City’s case why the 2003 amendment did not extend the contract term. (You can read the letter here.)

The decision in the grant assurances case is of tremendous importance—but not, I would argue, for what the decision might be. Whatever the decision is, it will free the City to take drastic action regarding the airport.

More background. Santa Monica has brought its own lawsuit against the FAA to determine whether a 1948 agreement requires the City to operate the airport “in perpetuity.” The case now languishes, on appeal from a procedural decision against the City, in the Ninth Circuit. But the 1948 agreement should not apply to a large parcel of land (known as the “Western Parcel”) that includes 2,000 feet of SMO’s 5,000-foot runway. If the City is not otherwise obligated (such as because of the grant assurances) to keep the airport operating, then regardless of the enforceability of the 1948 agreement the City should be able to close down the Western Parcel and reduce the runway to not more than 3,000 feet. In that event the largest private jets would not be able to use SMO.

(Important parenthetical: the FAA disputes this, and says that the 1948 agreement would be violated if the City terminated aviation on the Western Parcel. But if the FAA does bring an action against the City on this issue, it will be better to litigate first over the Western Parcel than over the airport as a whole.)

But why do I say that the actual decision in the grant assurances case is not important?

What is hamstringing the City from pulling the trigger on the Western Parcel is not whether the FAA might rule that the 2003 amendment extended the grant assurances to 2023, but rather the fact that the case is still pending. The City Council decided over a year ago that if the 2003 increase in the grant did extend the term of the grant assurances, then to resolve the matter the City would repay the FAA the $240,000. While the City has made strong arguments on both procedural and substantive grounds for why the FAA should dismiss the case, in practical terms the only issue is whether the City gets to keep the $240,000.

In a post two weeks ago, I wrote that the City need not make any strategic decisions regarding the airport until it receives the FAA’s decision in the grant assurances case. True enough, but the Lieu/Bass letter focuses the mind. Why? It’s one thing for the City to be patiently waiting for the FAA to announce a decision in the case, but it’s quite another when two members of Congress call the FAA out on their delay.

The FAA’s decision should come soon, but no matter what the decision is, the City’s strategy should be the same: announce a closing date, as soon as practicable, for all aviation operations on the Western Parcel.

Thanks for reading.

Growing a park at the airport: step by step

It’s been about a month since Santa Monica sued the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to confirm the City’s rights to control the future of Santa Monica Airport. The FAA still has a month or so to answer the City’s complaint, but in the meantime a lot has been going on that’s relevant to whether the airport will become a park.

For one thing, the FAA is losing political support, which could be critical as decisions are made in Washington. Although our representative in Congress, Henry Waxman, has said he won’t make any pronouncements about what he thinks the future of the airport should be until he feels he knows the wishes of his constituents, that has not stopped him from taking an increasingly aggressive attitude toward the FAA’s indifference to the rights and safety of those who live near the airport.

As reported in the Lookout News, the congressman, in response to concern from residents that a jet could overshoot the runway and devastate homes, recently wrote the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) requesting that the NTSB accelerate its review of the tragic crash in September that killed Mark Benjamin and three others.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, whose district borders the airport and includes West L.A. and Mar Vista, sent a letter Nov. 7 to the FAA calling for the agency to consider allowing Santa Monica to close the airport after expressing her conviction that the “airport represents a danger to the health and safety of surrounding residents.”

While the FAA is committed to defending aviation, it has to pick and choose which battles to fight and how hard to fight them. Notwithstanding its efforts, hundreds of airports have closed in past decades, and it must have some institutional knowledge about when a cause is more likely lost than winnable. The FAA is used to congressmen and women who want something from it, like funding for a new radar tower. When the representatives no longer support a local airport, then the FAA has to start wondering whether it’s worth using its resources to defend it.

While all of this is going on at the rarefied Congressional level, Airport2Park.org, the local group formed to advocate for turning the airport into a park, is picking up support locally. The Westside Neighborhood Council of the City of L.A. passed a resolution two weeks ago supporting A2P’s efforts, if the airport closes, to build a park there.

At the same time there’s been other news in Southern California that is relevant to turning the airport into a park – news about two other park projects.

First, in the big picture department, last week the L.A. Times reported on a proposal in Long Beach to turn a piece of underused freeway into a park, to serve a neighborhood that is “boxed in by refineries, rail yards and truck routes.” According to the Times, “city officials are considering a radical makeover of west Long Beach that would involve ripping out a one-mile section of one of the Southland’s first freeways, now mostly used by truckers, and replacing it with a long ribbon of green space.”

I bring this up because I still hear from people who think that turning the airport into a park is a fantasy. Meanwhile, all over the world cities are doing great things with the gritty leftovers from the industrial era. I.e., if Long Beach can turn a mile-long piece of freeway into a park, then Santa Monica can do the same thing with the airport’s mile-long runway, which fewer people use than the freeway.

The other story is a cautionary tale that falls in the “avoid this” department. Perhaps you’ve been reading about the troubles that the City of Irvine has had with financing the “Great Park” that it planned to replace the 1,300-acre El Toro air base. Irvine expected developers to pay for the park, and built 200 acres with the initial cash it got, but after the 2008 market crash there was no money to finish the park. Now Irvine is debating an offer from a developer to pay for a scaled-down version of the park in return for the right to build about 4,600 homes.

The lesson: don’t rely on developers to build important public infrastructure. There is no free lunch. Design a park that’s worth spending taxes on. Get over the idea that the public realm isn’t worth paying for, and we’ll have a public realm that is worth paying for.

Thanks for reading.

The park created in Chicago on the former Meigs Field.

The park created in Chicago on the site of the former Meigs Field.