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Direct rail link to LAX may be too costly and risky, officials say

Public TransportationRailway TransportationLA MetroLos Angeles International AirportEric GarcettiMark Ridley-Thomas

Los Angeles County transportation officials on Thursday sent a strong signal that a direct light-rail link to Los Angeles International Airport may be too risky and costly to pursue, a blow to a regional planning goal long-sought by many transit users and political and civic leaders. 

Members of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority board cited the high price tag and construction obstacles to building a tunnel and one or more stations on the Crenshaw Line beneath the airport's passenger terminals. 

The agency will focus primarily on options that would stop the Crenshaw Line about 1.5 miles from the airport and rely on some sort of people-mover system to take passengers to their terminals. But Metro staff also will report back with updated cost and ridership estimates for running the light-rail line under the terminal area, an option officials said could still be added to a crucial environmental impact study.

"Any time you go under the airport, it is fraught with problems," Los Angeles World Airports director Gina Marie Lindsey told the Metro board. 

Last week, Metro staff recommended excluding the direct connection options. Early cost estimates indicate tunneling would cost about $3 billion, more than double the cost of the above-ground options. 

Preliminary Metro studies showed that ridership and public support would be highest if the train stopped directly in the terminal area. Several public officials, including Rep. Janice Hahn (D-San Pedro), have called for such a connection.

Those in favor of studying the proposal further cited Los Angeles' past failure to bring rail to LAX. By the end of this decade, they note, two light-rail lines could come within three miles of the airport without completing the trip. The South Bay's Green Line hugs the southern end of the runways, but the only link to the nearby terminal is a shuttle bus. When the $2.06-billion Crenshaw Line opens in 2019, most options would have it pass more than a mile east of the terminals.

"It seems to me that we have an opportunity here to avoid mistakes of the past," said County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who introduced a motion to keep studying the light-rail options. "We do not wish to miss the mark." 

Mayor Eric Garcetti said he believed tunneling would be too expensive and voted against the options. 

Board members did agree to move ahead with a detailed environmental review of four options. All depend on the airport paying for and building a so-called "people mover," similar to the circulator train at San Francisco International Airport.

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 the people mover and a proposed shuttle bus and rental car hub.

Under the final option, the people mover would circle the terminals and connect with a light-rail station near LAX's iconic lighted pillars.

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Twitter: @laura_nelson

laura.nelson@latimes.com

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