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

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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.

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.

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