A decades-long effort to bring rail service directly to Los Angeles International Airport suffered a blow Thursday when transportation officials placed on the back burner a proposal for a light-rail tunnel under the terminal area, citing high costs and other risks.
Metro will now primarily focus on routes that would leave the north-south Crenshaw/LAX Line as much as 1.5 miles east of the airport and rely on a circulator train to take passengers to their terminals.
Barring a significant change, L.A. would soon have two light-rail routes that come near LAX but do not deliver passengers to their terminals, a problem that has puzzled and frustrated many civic leaders and transit users.
L.A. County is in the midst of a historic rail-building boom, with five rail lines under construction or in the final planning stages. Officials hope that a sprawling rail network with connections to key destinations — downtown, Santa Monica, Westwood, Pasadena, Long Beach — will boost transit use and reduce traffic congestion. A link into the LAX terminal area, which studies indicate would bring the most riders of any airport link option, is seen by some planners and politicians as central to the system's success.
But on Thursday several Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority board members agreed with a staff assessment that the construction risks are too great and the estimated $3-billion price tag too high to bring the Crenshaw line under LAX's runways and passenger areas. Officials have said tunneling is the only practical option to reach the terminals because of complications and restrictions on elevated construction at LAX.
Among those warning about the dangers of veering the rail line into LAX was the city airport director, Gina Marie Lindsey. "Any time you go under the airport, it is fraught with problems," she told the board at a downtown meeting.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti told fellow board members he believes tunneling will be too expensive and that routing the line through the terminal area would create delays for riders not traveling to the airport. "Nobody wants the ghost of the Green Line," Garcetti said in a later interview, referring to the 18-year-old light-rail line south of the airport that links to the terminal area by shuttle buses. He said he favors connecting the Crenshaw line to a transit hub northeast of the airport, where passengers could get their tickets and check their bags, but stressed he will continue to analyze other options.
Indeed, after a heated and lengthy debate, the board agreed to leave open the possibility of building stations under the airport, pending a further review of cost and ridership estimates by Metro analysts.
Those in favor of tunneling into LAX said past failures to bring rail to the airport have given Los Angeles a black eye.
"It seems to me that we have an opportunity here to avoid mistakes of the past," said county Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. He and others point to preliminary Metro studies showing that ridership and public support would be highest if the train stops in the terminal area.
If the train stops outside the airport, some transportation experts say it would not only be cheaper but could improve airport circulation if it leads to development of a people-mover loop. LAX's nine terminals are difficult to navigate on foot, said Juan Matute, associate director of the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies.
"If Metro knows they won't have the money to build light rail into the terminal area, and these people-mover options are a close substitute," that choice may provide the public the biggest benefit, Matute said. He said that Metro trains run less frequently at night, making a direct rail connection less convenient for travelers arriving and leaving the airport late in the evening. But most people-movers circulate through airport terminal areas every 90 seconds or two minutes, 24 hours a day, he noted.
Yet to be decided is how Metro and LAX will split the bill for any airport connection. Airport officials have agreed to pay for a people-mover, as well as a proposed transit hub for rental cars and shuttles. Metro has committed about $330 million to the cost of various airport connection alternatives, a fraction of the estimated cost.
Board members did agree to proceed with detailed environmental reviews of four options that would stop trains outside of terminal area.
One approach would bring the people-mover out nearly two miles to the east, to meet the Crenshaw line at the planned Aviation/Century station.
Another calls for a ground-level or aerial station at Aviation Boulevard and 96th Street, paid for by the airport.
The third option would shift the Crenshaw line to the west, where it would link up near what is now Parking Lot C with a people-mover and a proposed shuttle bus and rental car hub.
Under the final option, a light-rail station would be built near the eastern entrance to LAX and connect to a people-mover.
Jim Richardson, 47, who was boarding an LAX FlyAway Bus at Union Station on Thursday, said anything would be an improvement. "If I don't have to park or deal with the traffic, I'll ride it," he said.