The audience watches Jacobs Engineering Group representatives present the scope of the FIS feasibility study March 30. Photos by Jason Ruiz.
The first of two study sessions hosted by the Long Beach Airport (LGB) and the Jacobs Engineering Group, the firm tasked with carrying out the feasibility study for a potential international terminal and federal inspection station at LGB, drew over 100 residents to the Long Beach Gas and Oil auditorium Wednesday night to hear the scope, process and timetable for the group’s work.
However, a meeting that was intended to be run as sort of a job fair—break-out groups going station to station to learn about various components of the study and meeting with the person in charge of each area—quickly devolved into an hours-long town hall where angry and concerned residents relentlessly lobbed questions at the Jacobs team members about how the facility might impact the communities and if its study would account for those factors.
Steven Peters, the project manager for Jacobs, consistently distanced his group's work from any kind of politics that may end up being behind a decision to approve or deny after the feasibility study is carried out and reminded the attendees that this was just a step in the process that would determine if the project was economically feasible for the city, and if so, what kind of supplemental studies would be needed in the event the city council decided to move forward with it.
“I know there’s a lot of emotion and there’s politics and there’s all those other things but at least from the perspective from what we’ve been tasked to do, it is to give the best factual information possible so that when there is a discussion on whether to proceed or not, the people that must actually decide that have the best possible information,” Peters said. “That’s our job.”
The scope of the study was outlined in a brochure distributed to those in attendance, with a digital copy provided on the airport’s website. It listed the various categories that Jacobs would be analyzing, like future flight projections and destinations, possible security risks associated with international terminals, a potential rise of general aviation activity and measures of the airport’s current set up, also determining whether or not it could physically support the demands of international travel.
The Jacobs team did note that the scope of the work was more or less closed and would not include any community input unless it advanced past a council vote at the conclusion of the group’s study. Then, concerns voiced by residents, mostly dealing with environmental impact, could be added to an environmental impact report that might be necessary for the project to move forward.
Some of those concerns ranged from the obvious—whether or not the study would include the likelihood of the noise ordinance being challenged or increased pollution from increased aviation traffic—but also included outliers like the potential for Mexican drug cartels to use LGB as a hub for travel and the costs associated with an increased presence of crime or terrorist elements.
Eighth District city council candidate Laurie Angel pressed the Jacobs representatives on how long its forecast would reach into the future and whether or not it would include a more granular look at pollution effects or if it would employ a model that averaged the impact across the city instead of focusing on affected communities.
“It’s a lot like the economic impacts that were discussed earlier,” Angel said. “When you look at environmental impacts you can’t average it over the entire area because it dilutes the local impacts. We have a port, we have railroads, we have four freeways, we have increased traffic through here all the time. So I’m wondering how specific can you get, because the averaging will never serve this community properly.”
The increased noise potentially brought about by an increase in general aviation activity and use of all permitted flight spots worried residents who live in the Fourth, Fifth and Eighth districts, which are most affected by airport noise.
“Right now I can handle the aircraft coming over my house, but if it becomes like a nonstop train of landings over my head of both commercial aircraft and general aviation, are you going to be evaluating how many aircraft you expect to be using [with] that approach and the impact that it would have on my home and my community?” asked another resident in attendance.
Peters said the scope of the study would include the amount of increase in traffic but not the impact from an environmental stance. Any additional EIR that would be needed would be determined by whether or not the fleet mix used in the airport’s most recent EIR carried out during the airport's capital improvement projects differed from the one used in its projections. However, he said that the fundamental scope of Jacobs’ study is built around the concept that the city’s noise ordinance cannot be breached.
“One of the givens of the study is that the noise ordinance constrains the operations at the airport so nothing at the study would take into consideration an action that would imperil the noise ordinance,” Peters said. “The noise ordinance is a given.”
Studying the feasibility of international travel at LGB started with a formal request submitted by JetBlue last February when it asked the city to explore its options. There have been many starts and stops along the way, with the city council voting for a moratorium to allow for the Fourth District seat to be filed after it was vacated midterm by Patrick O’Donnell’s departure to the State Assembly.
The process has also been sprinkled with speculation from the public and some city leaders that JetBlue has been intentionally “slot squatting” by straddling its contractual obligation to the airport by flying the minimum amount of flights while the airport continually lost revenue through decreased activity. However, despite reservations from some council members that the city was being held hostage by JetBlue, the study was approved in January with former Airport Director Bryant Francis saying at the time that while JetBlue pushed for the study, other airlines would stand to benefit.
“We do believe that users of this facility, should it come to fruition at some point in the future, it would extend beyond a single carrier,” Francis said during the January 19 council meeting. “It is true that JetBlue submitted a formal request to my attention at the end of February, which is what began this process […] however, we do believe that there will be other beneficiaries at the airport.”
The FIS study session came on the eve of Southwest Airline’s press conference on-board the Queen Mary, which is set to formally announce that the airline would fly the four slots it has been awarded. The slots were offered to the carrier after the airport’s annual noise budget analysis determined nine additional slots needed to be offered to stay in compliance with the city’s noise ordinance, which establishes limits and curfews for noise. The five other slots were awarded to JetBlue (three) and Delta Airlines (two).
Interim Airport Director Juan Lopez Rios reiterated that the study was not the end of the process, but merely the beginning of one that could very well determine that an international facility is not financially viable for the city, and even if it is found to be an option, could be voted down by the city council.
“Jacobs is not going to actually determine yes or no; they are going to provide us with pros and cons once they do the analysis in these areas and provide us with the information so that the city council can look at that information and decide whether or not to pursue this any further,” Rios said.
The process is expected to take about five to six months, which gives it an end date of late September or early October. However, Peters said that factors like the residents getting the council to expand the scope of Jacobs’ study or pertinent data not being readily available could make the process take longer. The cost of the study is estimated to be about $350,000 and will be paid out of the airport's enterprise fund, but Peters said there is a “reasonable expectation” that JetBlue could, in theory, end up paying for it, since it requested the study.
Peters said the feasibility baseline will be based on the 2013 Frasca and Associates study of the same topic, but will differ greatly in two important areas; the technical scope of the study and the situation the airport and the city are in financially. What exactly would make the project a financially viable option in terms of revenue is too soon to say, since the firm is still in the data collection stag.
However, he noted that while economics are important, so too are the items brought up by the public.
This is the first time Peters has led a project of this scope—a municipal airport in the Untied States with domestic-only travel looking to add international travel—but Jacobs has had extensive experience, he said. He said even if the scenario ends up being that the facility is feasible, someone is able to pay for it and it has no adverse impacts on the environment or the noise ordinance, there’s still a drawn-out process that lies before the city. He said that this kind of study is just the first hurdle and that Jacobs is not a “yes man” firm, but it’s probable that this isn’t the only step in the process the city will take.
“Generally speaking, when someone asks a question at this stage of the process there’s an expectation that there will be a follow up,” Peters said. “Most people don’t invest this kind of money to get a negative answer but it has happened before. We have said more than once to clients ‘you know, it’s not true that if you build it they will come.’”
The next scheduled meeting is set for April 20 at 6:00PM inside the Long Beach Gas and Oil Department Auditorium, located at 2400 East Spring Street.