Mass Transit Connector to LAX Moves Forward: But Should It?

The drumbeat for a rail connection to LAX beats on in Los Angeles. Metro announced this week it is on the verge of commissioning a $4.7 million environmental and logistical study into improving mass transit to and from LAX.

Last week I called the plan a "vanity project" and argued on this site that such a connection made absolutely no sense at this point. The city's rail network isn't extensive enough to justify such an expense. Unless Valley riders, Westside riders, and Wilshire corridor riders can reach LAX efficiently by rail, there's no point in building an LAX connection. We'll be spending hundreds of millions of dollars so people who live along Crenshaw (who could drive or hop a quick cab far easier--it's only 15 minutes away after all) and some USC kids can have rail access to the airport.

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I took plenty of heat from mass transit advocates for the post. But I stand by my argument, especially after Metro unveiled more detailed plans this week for how they plan on linking LAX to our rail system.

Contrary to the forceful assertions of many LAX connector-advocates I heard from regarding my previous post, the new Crenshaw Connector has no plans to link directly with LAX. It will stop 1.8 miles short of the airport and will link to the Green Line.

So here's the dilemma: how do you get people from the train to their terminal?

Among the options are a shuttle bus connecting Metro to the various airport terminals. This option already exists, mind you. Anyone currently living on an existing Metro rail line can take the Green Line to LAX and catch a connecting shuttle bus to your terminal. This option is not as appalling as it sounds. Perfectly connected airports like Logan in Boston do the same. Angelenos tend not to exercise this option, however, because without an adequate citywide rail network, it's a time-consuming endeavor that requires multiple transfers--with all your baggage in tow. Using the Flyaway (and virtually every other means of transportation short of the breast stroke) makes infinitely more sense.

The most logical option to connect LAX terminals to light rail is an automated people mover--a driverless, elevated monorail system removed from street traffic. The Air Train people mover at JFK airport in New York costs five dollars to ride. It comes every ten minutes, stops at every terminal, and typically takes about 15-25 minutes to deposit you from the subway to your terminal and vice versa.

I imagine we'll get a similar system in Los Angeles. Though Metro is apparently exploring the option of connecting light rail to the airport, there's no way they'll go that route. Far too expensive. Even if they did manage it, the line would require some kind of transfer to a shuttle bus, because a functional subway line cannot make individual terminal stops at LAX. That would be pure insanity, and would render both the Green Line and the Crenshaw Connector unrideable for any purpose other than going to/from the airport.

Here's the problem though: right now we have a rail to shuttle bus connection to LAX and no one uses it; rail directly to each terminal is completely unfeasible; and people movers are costly. Again, the system in New York costs five bucks just to take you from the airport to the subway. I imagine our system in LA will carry a similar cost. Who in their right mind is going to take that train, when you can simply hop on the Flyaway from near your home, directly to your terminal for the same price?

The simple fact is, in the presence of a superior mass method of airport transit--the Flyaway--no sensible person is going to use the LAX connection as it's currently constituted. If Angelenos truly want an LAX connection that makes sense, they should be BEGGING Metro to build a North/South line along the 405, connecting the Valley to the airport. A 405 line would not only alleviate traffic on one of our busiest freeways, connect the aborted Westside extension to the Expo line, but it would also link virtually every corridor of the city north of the 10 to LAX.

Think of it: a three pronged delivery system to LAX. Valley, Westside and Westside Extension riders from the Wilshire corridor would take the 405 route; our aforementioned Crenshaw, USC crew could take the Crenshaw Connector; and South LA/Long Beach riders could take the existing Blue Line/Green Line routes. Most of the major population hubs of Los Angeles would have rail access to LAX--justifying the expense of building a people-mover.

A 405 line is the missing link to make the LAX connector make sense. Until that plan is on the table, however, let's stop distracting ourselves with an LAX connection no one will use.

About the Author

I'm a veteran LA-based journalist and editor who has been a staff writer with the LA Weekly and senior editor of the LA City Beat. I'm currently a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Times Magazine, editor for Fishbowl LA, and ...

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Mr. Fleischer,
I disagree. A rail connection to LAX makes a lot of sense. The problem is getting it there due to opposition from the FAA on some projections that the catenary lines would interfere with radar. I find this hard to believe since at the Portland, OR airport the light rail runs within one-hundred yards of a runway with planes on it. And while Portland has a light rail, I don't think it is greater in rail miles than Los Angeles', and I know Los Angeles' ridership numbers are higher. So, in comparison to Portland, there should be a light rail to the proximity of LAX.

A light rail line should not go into LAX to each terminal, that would be a waste of the time for the rider who wants to travel further than the airport.

But the Crenshaw Line/Green Line going to an LAX transit terminal for some type of mass transit vehicle into the airport makes a lot of sense. The Crenshaw Line will serve not only those neighborhoods which the line will traverse, and are deserving of a light rail line, but also the mid-Wilshire area which holds a lot of people. These residents can take the Crenshaw Line to the airport transit center and then into the airport. The Crenshaw Line, one hopes, will connect not only to the Expo Line, but the extended subway once it is built.

If a mid-Wilshire resident today wants to take the Flyaway to LAX they have two options: go to Union Station or Westwood. Not exactly convenient, so additional options are needed. They would either take a bus or buses, or drive and pay for extended parking charge.

I agree that a train needs to go from West Los Angeles into the valley, and a subway would be the best and fastest. I don’t think there is enough room the Sepulveda Pass for a light rail along the San Diego Freeway.

For bus riders wishing to get to LAX, they currently need to take a bus, or buses, to the LAX Transit Center, and then walk to the Parking Lot C shuttle to take them into the airport. There is no charge for this, and your speculation that it would cost five dollars like New York is just speculation.

As a transit rider and Westchester resident living next to LAX, and having to put up with airport noise and pollution, I see a number of people use a bus to either get to LAX, or to go to some destination away from the airport. This is common.

As a longtime transit rider, I know from experience that rail is far superior than bus for the rider. While the costs are greater for rail, its permanence and better transit experience is worthwhile and in the long run, the costs even out.
Matthew H.