A Republican congressmember from Louisiana is not happy with the deal struck between the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the city of Santa Monica that would allow the municipality to close Santa Monica airport at the end of 2028.
In a letter [PDF] to FAA Administrator Eric Huerta and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, Congressmember Ralph Abraham (R-Louisiana) challenged the unprecedented agreement, which was announced in late January. Abraham claims the agreement “departs from the long-standing principle that the federal government will preserve airport infrastructure and hold airport sponsors accountable, especially when they have accepted federal money and committed to deed-based obligations to operate the airport in perpetuity,” according to his letter.
The Republican congressmember’s letter also ties his argument for keeping the airport open to President Donald Trump’s claim that infrastructure investment is a top priority for the administration and he expresses concern about the precedent the FAA’s agreement with Santa Monica might set for airports in his own district and around the country.
Santa Monica’s congressional representative, Ted Lieu, a Democrat, has been a vocal advocate for closing the airport.
When the city announced the agreement with the FAA — after decades of litigation — it came as a surprise to many (more details about the decades of legal battles between the FAA and the city can be read here). At the time, City Attorney Joseph Lawerence noted that such an agreement was, in fact, “unprecedented” because no other city in the U.S. has secured permission from the FAA to close the an airport within their jurisdiction.
And, until two weeks prior to the announcement, Lawerence noted at the January 28 press conference, the FAA had still insisted that the city, which owns the 227-acre upon which the airport sits, must operate the airport “in perpetuity.”
The agreement also allowed the city to take immediate action to shorten the runway from 4,973 feet to 3,500 feet, effectively eliminating nearly half of all jet traffic at the airport. The city has already been chipping away at the airport.
Most recently, a 12-acre section of the airport along Bundy Drive was reclaimed by the city and officials have since been working toward turning it into an expansion of Airport Park. Ultimately, activists hope to do the same with the entire 227-acre parcel.
Abraham’s letter follows on the heels of a legal challenge to the agreement filed by the National Business Aviation Association. The Airplane Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), a DC-based lobbying organization, recently announced it, too, would sign on to the challenge.
In 2014, AOPA was the main backer of an electoral effort to keep the airport open. That year, AOPA placed a measure on Santa Monica’s ballot — Measure D — that would have required voter approval of any minor changes to the uses at Santa Monica Airport, including whether or not fuel could be sold there.
The City Council, with the support of avid anti-airport activists, placed a counter measure on the ballot, Measure LC, which said that the council maintained discretion on uses there and voter approval would only be required if the land use were to be changed to anything more intensive than a park. Measure LC handily beat Measure D despite a significant imbalance in campaign funding.
“The latest AOPA legal action is effectively a request for recognition by federal courts that will allow any airport user to enforce the city’s various obligations under the agreement, establishing with certainty that the agreement leaves intact a process through which the public can seek relief should an airport host community fail to live up to its responsibilities and obligations under federal law,” AOPA wrote on its website.
Still, the agreement the city signed with the FAA, which was ratified by a federal judge early in February, explicitly ends all current legal disputes the city had with the FAA, including the question raised by the Republican congressmember about “deed-based obligations” to run the parcel as an airport forever, which was at the center of the legal dispute.