Connecting Metro Rail to Los Angeles International Airport: here is a look at issues currently on the table

With the Crenshaw/LAX Line getting closer to construction in 2014, I wanted to address a specific issue involving the project: how the Metro Rail system will eventually connect to the terminals at Los Angeles International Airport.

I also wanted to address a related notion floating around in the buzz-o-sphere that the Crenshaw/LAX Line should be delayed and redesigned to travel closer to the airport.

I’ve broken up the post into three sections to make it digestible because, quite frankly, some of it is unavoidably wonky and bureaucratic. I know there are many people interested in the question of running trains all the way to the airport terminals; please see the last section of this post.

THE BASICS

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The Crenshaw/LAX Line is a light rail project that will run for 8.5 miles between the Expo Line and the Green Line, as the map shows. The project includes an elevated station at the intersection of Aviation and Century boulevards, about 1.3 miles east of Terminal 1 at LAX. The new station is a bit closer to terminals than the Green Line’s Aviation station (at Imperial Highway), which is two miles from Terminal 1.

The Airport Metro Connector is in the planning stages and will connect the Crenshaw/LAX Line and the Green Line to the airport terminals via either a light rail line or an automated people mover (APM) — or a combination of those. Funding will likely come from both Metro and Los Angeles World Airports, the city of L.A. agency that runs LAX. Here are the six alternatives under study (larger versions of each are at the end of this post):

130901 Alternatives Large Maps

Click above to see larger.

The main issue that everyone needs to understand: The Crenshaw/LAX Line has a station on the western side of Aviation at Century. It is environmentally cleared and set to be built.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles World Airports has recommended building a people mover station on the east side of the intersection of Aviation and 98th. An elevated block-long walkway would connect the light rail station and the people mover, requiring a trip up and down stairs or an elevator trip for those transferring (rendering below).

staff recommendation for spas.

Source: Los Angeles World Airports.

Source: Los Angeles World Airports.

Los Angeles World Airports has also proposed two other locations where light rail stations could be built for a more direct transfer to the people mover (see below). One is on 98th Street between Sepulveda and Aviation boulevards at the airport’s proposed Intermodal Transportation Facility (known as the ‘ITF’), a hub the airport says that would include buses, light rail and the people mover and include remote check-in and a commercial component. The other possible station location is underground near the entrance to horseshoe road that serves the airport’s terminals.

Metro Map

Source: Los Angeles World Airports.

All three potential light rail station locations have something in common: people using light rail to reach the airport would still have to transfer to a people mover to get to the terminals. Airport officials say that the people mover may include secure vehicles to carry those who have already checked in at the ITF and non-secure vehicles for those who still must check-in at the existing terminal areas.

The dilemma for Metro is that reaching any of three proposed locations for light rail at the airport requires moving the Crenshaw/LAX Line to the west or building a rail spur from the Crenshaw/LAX Line. Moving the Crenshaw/LAX Line would cost a minimum of $600 million, according to Metro. That is much more than the $200 million Measure R has allocated for the Airport Connector project. Funding for filling that gap would have to be found — no easy task — and the airport has not yet committed to any amount of funding.

In addition, moving the Crenshaw/LAX Line would, at best, cause major delays to the project (it is currently forecast to be completed in 2019). Delays could in turn risk funding for the project.

There is another problem. The airport has yet to give the final green light to the people mover project while litigation over a proposal by LAX to move its north runway further north is resolved. Metro, of course, does not want to move the Crenshaw/LAX Line or build a rail spur with no guarantee at this time that the people mover or any other facility will be built.

PROJECT HISTORY

In order to understand how we’ve reached this point, it helps to understand the history of the Crenshaw/LAX Line, the Airport Metro Connector and LAWA’s modernization plans for the airport. In chronological order:

•Metro and its predecessor agencies in Los Angeles County first studied a north-south transit line that would focus on serving the area along or near Crenshaw Boulevard in 1967 as part of a regional transit plan. Over the years, some of the studies have included direct transit connections to the airport. Others have not. Here’s a good history of the studies.

•In the early 1990s, Metro had an approved environmental study to connect the Green Line to LAX. Due to an inability to receive approval from LAWA or the Federal Aviation Administration for the line, funds were moved to other projects and the connection was never built.

•In 2001, Los Angeles World Airports released a draft of the second phase of its Master Plan that included two people movers to connect the airport terminals and other existing and planned airport facilities. One people mover was planned to go east along Century Boulevard (which connects the 405 freeway to the airport) and another would have traveled south to the Green Line.

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The second phase of the Master Plan was challenged in court by several groups — including nearby homeowners. In 2006 the airport settled and agreed that with further study it could pursue some elements from the Master Plan, including the people mover. Those would be studied as part of a Specific Plan Amendment Study, known as SPAS.

•In 2007, the studies for the Crenshaw project began. The following year, voters in Los Angeles County approved the half-cent sales tax increase known as Measure R. The spending plan for Measure R included $1.7 billion for the Crenshaw project and another $200 million for a Green Line Extension to the airport, a project that was later renamed the Airport Metro Connector.

•In 2011, the Metro Board of Directors gave their final approval of the route Crenshaw/LAX Line, including a station at Century and Aviation. No city or airport officials protested or testified against the route along Aviation Boulevard during the previous four years of study, which included several Board votes on alternatives and routes.

•Formal studies for the Airport Metro Connector began in 2010 in consultation with Los Angeles World Airports. An Alternatives Analysis (AA) was completed in April 2012. The AA proposed six alternatives shown above that should be studied more extensively in a draft environmental impact report.

•In Dec. 2012, Los Angeles World Airports released its staff recommendation for its Specific Plan Amendment Study (known as SPAS) on projects from the old master plan it wanted to pursue. LAWA staff recommended building a single people mover that would travel along 98th Street, stop at the ITF and then continue to a people mover station to connect to Metro’s station at Aviation and Century and, ultimately, to Manchester Square.

GOING FORWARD

The Metro Board of Directors approved the contract to build the Crenshaw/LAX Line in June. In early September, the agency gave the go-ahead to its contractor to begin design/build work with the expectation that heavy construction will begin in 2014.

The Airport Metro Connector project, meanwhile, has begun work on the project’s initial planning and is waiting to begin its draft environmental impact study. Metro staff is working to understand performance characteristics and estimate ridership and costs for each of the six alternatives under study. Some preliminary results will be presented to the Metro Board of Directors this month. Work will continue through 2014.

It remains to be seen whether alternatives that would bring light rail all the way to the airport terminals via tunnels are economically and politically viable and whether LAWA wants Metro to pursue them.

Metro would need LAWA’s permission to build anything on, above or below airport property. At a Los Angeles City Council committee meeting on Wednesday, airport officials said bringing light rail into the terminal area was challenging for several reasons: security, lack of customer baggage racks in light rail vehicles, trains couldn’t run more often than every five minutes (versus 90 seconds to 120 seconds for a people mover), tunneling near or under terminals was risky and building rail above ground would be difficult because of existing structures. 

Metro officials continue to work with LAWA’s planning staff. The Airport Metro Connector is scheduled to be complete in 2028 in Metro’s Long Range Transportation Plan, although the Metro Board of Directors have expressed a desire to advance that date, if possible. Funding will be a factor; in most cases in the U.S., airports contribute to the cost of connecting to rail lines. See Attachment A of this report.

Obviously this is a big issue for our region. As one business official said at the Council committee meeting on Wednesday, a transit station at LAX will be heavily scrutinized. That’s absolutely right. And it remains clear some big decisions remain ahead.

Here are larger versions of the six alternatives under study by Metro:

130813 Alt A

130813 Alt B

130813 Alt C1

130813 Alt C2

130813 Alt C3

130813 Alt C4