Bud Ovrom: Hollywood-Burbank Airport’s Replacement Terminal Project Moves Forward

Bud Ovrom

After decades of political wrangling and over a year of pandemic-induced delay, the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority expects to issue an RFQ this quarter for Elevate BUR— Hollywood-Burbank Airport’s 14-gate replacement terminal project. VXNews checked in with Bud Ovrom, one of Burbank’s three Commissioners on the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority for an update on the Airport’s capital improvement plans. Ovrom additionally opines on the challenges of federal preemption over curfews and flight paths and elaborates on the Airport’s role in the overall air transport infrastructure of Metropolitan Los Angeles.

Commissioner, you were appointed by the Burbank City Council in May of 2021 to serve as one of the city’s three commissioners on the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority. What enticed you to accept this appointment?

Bud Ovrom: Well, I have been involved with the Burbank airport for a long time. When I was city manager at Burbank for 18 years, I bet the airport took 20 percent of my time, and it was a very difficult time. There were a lot of lawsuits, a lot of political infighting, and a lot of money spent. When I retired from Burbank all that was still going on.

While I was gone, they made peace, much credit to the various city councils in Burbank, Glendale, Pasadena, and the airport commissioners. After years of legal and political fighting, they agreed upon a plan to move forward. That plan was approved by the voters in November of 2016. It's been five years since the voters passed it, and it still hasn't started construction, so I was interested in getting back into it. If I had been here through the difficult years, I wanted to be here during the good years, when we're finally going to build a replacement terminal.

Elaborate on the scale and features of the new (replacement) Burbank-Glendate-Pasadena Airport terminal.

The replacement terminal is just that, a replacement terminal. The terminal now has 14 gates and the replacement terminal will have 14 gates. It will have exactly the same number of parking spaces as the existing terminal. It's not an expanded terminal; it's just a replacement terminal. It'll have a few more square feet—from 232,000 square feet to 355,000 plus square feet. With social distancing and everything, that makes sense in a post COVID world. The runways, the flight paths, and all of that will be exactly the same.

Why is it so important that the replacement terminal have the same number of gates as it has now?

That was the heart of the political infighting that went on for so many years. If there was going to be a new terminal, the people of Burbank wanted there to be a mandatory curfew and a cap on the number of flights. Burbank was not willing to agree to a new terminal until we could get a curfew and caps, but the FAA was simply not going to give it.

I think after all this fighting and all those millions of dollars spent, the people of Burbank came to the point of view that they had to accept that the FAA was simply never going to grant a cap and curfew, which was a bitter pill to accept because San Diego, Long Beach, and John Wayne all have caps and curfews. It's just where we were in terms of the federal law. It took a lot of time, but people finally accepted the fact that we need the terminal for safety reasons, and the feds were never going to give us the caps and the curfews.

So, the same size terminal was part of the political peace treaty to get voter approval to go forward with the replacement terminal even though we couldn't get caps and curfews.

If everything goes on schedule, we have tentative dates scheduled for going out for RFQs before the end of this quarter then we're going to do a progressive design-build. We'll get proposals back from various architects, contractors, and teams, and then we will award the contract and start the design and construction. We have a plan, and we're finally moving forward on it.

How significant, in this Los Angeles metropolis and for the San Fernando Valley, is the “Hollywood” Burbank airport?

Well, we're really small potatoes in that respect. LAX now handles 80 or 90 million passengers, and at our highest point, we've been about 6 million. We're smaller than San Diego, John Wayne, and even  Ontario now has more passengers per year than we do.

We're not LAX, and we don't want to be, but we are a significant building block in the San Fernando Valley. We have 10 airlines now serving the airport that go nonstop to 30 destinations. Our bread and butter are still San Francisco, Sacramento, and Las Vegas, but you can go to New York or Nashville, and we actually and we actually accept flights to and from a couple of cities in Canada. We're not big in terms of county-wide or region-wide, but we're important to the San Fernando Valley.

With three cities overseeing ownership and management of the Airport, and as a former city manager, give readers an insight into how successfully the cities collaborate.

Well, it's worked surprisingly well. These three cities have a history of working together. We own an airport; we do all of our fire and paramedic dispatching together, under one dispatch system. The cities have always had a good working relationship on a lot of things, and the airport is an important part of that. It has been strained because Glendale and Pasadena don't bear the brunt of the noise. LA is not a member of the JPA (Joint Power Authority), but the brunt of the noise burden is carried by the city of Los Angeles.

Address the noise issue that has politically pitted the cities against the FAA. The Ninth Circuit recently ruled against the petition to revert to the old 2017 routes to the annoyance of impacted residents. How has the latter decision been received? 

It's been very hurtful.  When people come to commission meetings and talk about the noise, our hearts really go out to these neighborhoods that are adversely impacted.

What’s happened in the last few years is the FAA nationally has adopted this NextGen navigation system, which is really important to the Feds on a national basis. They're determined that this satellite-driven navigation system has to be implemented nationwide. We can't make alterations for every single city between here and New York.

What has happened as a result of this Next Gen system is the planes have drifted to the south. There's nothing that requires them to, but there has been an empirical demonstration that the flight paths have drifted to the south, so people who were not getting noise in the past are getting noise now.

Our hearts really go out to them, but there's nothing we in Burbank or Glendale or Pasadena can do about it. Flight paths are determined by the FAA. They're running a national aviation system, so they're going to stick by their national aviation system.

There is no correlation between the new terminal and the flight paths. The runways are going to stay exactly where the runways are; the flight paths are going to stay exactly where the flight paths are. Whether we have the terminal on one side of the runway or the other side of the runway, that isn't going to affect the noise issue. People come to us and want us to do something. We encourage them to call their Congressperson or call their Senator because this is all federally preempted.

Congressman Adam Schiff has repeatedly  weighed in on this issue. In the past it was thought that  the airlines were going to purchase quieter planes. Is there an acceptable solution available?

Adam has been a great ally of the neighborhoods and a great ally of the airport. He has always tried to be most helpful.

The planes are much quieter. The planes that come along today are more fuel efficient, environmentally cleaner, and quieter but they're still there.

We call those LULUs, locally unacceptable land uses. If you live near an airport, there is going to be noise. It's just a fact of life. I think they'll continue to get quieter, but they're still there.

Elaborate on what support the airport has received from the federal government and what you expect in terms of infrastructure funding going forward.

The feds have been incredibly helpful in keeping the Burbank Airport and all airports going during the pandemic. As you know, the bottom fell out of passenger activity for a solid 18 months and still hasn't recovered totally. There was a national interest in maintaining the navigation system and making sure the airports stayed in existence, so when the economy recovered, the airports were ready to hit the ground running. During the pandemic, we never had to lay off or furlough any employees. We were able to keep the entire workforce intact even though there weren't as many passengers going through.

We were allocated $52 million to keep the airport intact. I think we've only spent about $22 million of that, and it’s what's kept the airport going. We still have about $30 million that we could call upon. The feds have played an absolutely integral role in keeping all airports viable during the pandemic.

Going forward in terms of infrastructure, the legislation has been passed for federal assistance to airports. We're happy to get whatever we can. Most of the federal money will come through a formula basis based on enplanements, and like I said earlier, we're not a very big airport. Out of the federal infrastructure money, we think maybe we could get as much as $40 million. We will be very appreciative, but $40 million isn’t a game changer on a $1.2 billion airport terminal. We still need to fund this airport locally.

Do local governments—demeaned by the state legislature and relatively underfunded for years— presently have the people and the planning tools in place to invest new infrastructure funding wisely?

I sure hope we do. I was out touring the airport fire department this morning. It's not a really great physical facility. I remember when I was city manager of Burbank, we built every single fire station in Burbank, we built a new fire and police headquarters, and we built a new Fire Training Center with Redevelopment Agency money. That tool just doesn't even exist anymore. I look at whatever the problem is, if it's homelessness or affordable housing, and we do not have today the money or the tools that we had back in the heyday when I was city manager. One of those biggest tools was redevelopment agencies. 

Before concluding, what if anything is missing in today’s civic conversations re how localities ought to address the challenges of housing affordability and homelessness?

Well, I have not kept up on the housing situation, but it bothers me as a local government professional that the mechanism the state has used is to preempt local control over zoning. If there's any anything that's local, it's zoning. Now the state government has basically usurped that power from cities and is dictating from Sacramento. That bothers me greatly.

At the same time, I appreciate the problem that the state sees because they look at the cities and see they just haven't built enough housing. The population is growing, the demand for housing is growing, and the cities are not allowing or building enough housing.

Lastly, immediately after the passage of Jarvis’ Prop 13, the housing affordability problem was often described as the result of the ‘fiscalization’ of land use-—cities, no longer benefited from increased property tax revenue from greenlighting housing and instead focused attention on sales tax generators. Is that misalignment of state/local tax incentives still a problem for cities?

I think it is. I can't disagree with the premise that the fiscalization of land use was a real issue. Cities would rather build a Walmart because it generated a pocketful of sales tax revenues than build housing. We had numeric formulas that the redevelopment agencies had to spend. I think it started out at 10 percent, then 20 percent, then 25 percent. When I was in the city of LA, the Redevelopment Agency was spending 50 percent of their tax increment on housing. There were abuses, but there was also a lot of great work done. At the end of the day, redevelopment agencies got punished for the abuses. 

Much of the attack on the state is from development on trying to reform CEQA and make it easier to streamline that process. What are your thoughts about what the role of CEQA should be?

I'm a former city manager and a development-oriented city manager. On the housing problem, I always saw just a supply and demand. I wanted to increase the supply. I am a development-oriented person, but I am increasingly environmentally sensitive. I am really concerned about global warming and rising sea levels and a whole host of other areas. CEQA can be a pain. I think we're getting better at doing it, but every passing year, I find myself more and more an environmentalist.

We're determined that this airport terminal will be LEED Platinum. We talk about net zero, we talk about fossil fuel-free. We all have an obligation to do everything we can do regardless of CEQA. We have to do it because it's the right thing, not just because the laws require it.

Now that you're free from the City of LA, what should the voters of Los Angeles be looking for in a new mayor?

I’m persuaded today that you need to look at the character of the individual rather than specific experience at this or specific experience at that. I spent my whole career in city management and never faced outright bona fide corruption until I got to the City of Los Angeles. My assistant general manager of Building and Safety was Ray Chan. I worked with Jose Huizar. I am very discouraged about the corruption and the abuse of power.

There is this notion that in LA nothing is more important than the decision of the host councilmember. There's no zoning law, no planning commission, no Regional Planning Commission—there's nothing in the process  as important as the decision of the individual councilmember. They say that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The councilmembers have absolute power and I'm very discouraged with how things have worked out in the last number of years in LA.

I really look for character. I look for a person who can raise the standard. We need somebody that really sets the bar high in terms of integrity and character. That's going to be the most important litmus test for me.

The city of LA has no city manager. The city of San Diego got rid of city management about a decade ago. What's the value of city management for larger and smaller cities to manage the responsibilities?

Particularly in the medium to smaller-sized cities that  don't have full time council members or full-time directly elected mayor, having a professional manager is incredibly important. The larger the city, the less apt it is to have a city manager.

LA did charter reform to give the mayor more power, so the directly-elected mayor is the closest thing city of LA or any big city has to a city manager. Even after charter reform, LA's mayor is not as strong as the mayor of New York and Mayor of Chicago.

From your service as city manager, what do you see as the evolving role of local government in California?

It's as important, if not more important, today. It is still the government closest to the people. I can't go to the supermarket without somebody bending my ear about something. You go to a council meeting here, and you're going to hear from your constituents. You're not going to hear from them in Sacramento or Washington, D.C. I am a big believer in government of the people, by the people, for the people and that's what local governments are all about. Again, I am discouraged that local government has not done its share to address the housing crisis, so the state's preempting, and I don't like that, but they're preempting it because local government is not getting the job done.

“If everything goes on schedule, we have tentative dates scheduled for going out for RFQs before the end of this quarter then we're going to do a progressive design-build…We have a plan, and we're finally moving forward on it.” Bud Ovrom, Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority Commissioner