A Subway Link to LAX? It's Still a Faraway Notion


Like a lot of people in Los Angeles, I was pleased a few weeks ago at the news that the city's Metro Red Line had been extended at last into Hollywood. And like a lot of people, as I rode free from Tinseltown to downtown on that opening weekend (it's normally $1.35 each way), I found my thoughts drifting south and west.

To the airport, where, despite the examples set by other big cities around the world, the subway still does not go.

The Blue Line already delivers light-rail service to Long Beach, and the Metro system may reach the San Fernando Valley as planned next year. But the Green Line to El Segundo and Redondo Beach, the Metro line that reaches nearest to the airport, still gets no closer than Aviation Boulevard and Imperial Highway, about a mile from LAX's passenger terminals.

City officials (who control the airport) and Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials (who control the Metro system) have given various reasons for this perplexing route, including safety concerns and the idea that airport officials didn't want to continue the subway until they'd clarified their long-term plans for the expansion and reshaping of the airport. (More about the expansion later.)

Thus, for the last few years, to get via Metro from, say, downtown to the airport, travelers have had to take a Red Line train, transfer to a Green Line train, wait 10 to 20 minutes at the terminus on Aviation for a free shuttle bus, then take the shuttle, called the G bus, to the terminal. I don't know anyone who's actually done this, but last year the airport counted 72,980 passengers on those G buses, a 14% increase over the year before.

(A spokesman noted that the MTA's buses stop about half a mile from the nearest airport terminal, near Sepulveda Boulevard and 96th Street. From there, most travelers walk 150 feet to the Lot C shuttle bus stop and catch the C bus to their terminal.)

If you walk around the airport asking people in uniforms how to reach the Metro system, as I did one day in the middle of June, you get a lot of blank stares. Not too many written clues either. Eventually, one of the taxi attendants did point me to the waiting area for shuttle buses to the parking lots A, B and C. Though the G bus doesn't run as often as the A, B and C buses, one did turn up soon enough. Still, I'd never bet on an Angeleno, never mind a tourist from elsewhere, to discover and use this option.

So when will the subway and the airport truly meet? Even the optimists say it will be years.

The mayor, airport board and City Council are still sparring over the master plan that will decide expansion strategy, and there's an environmental impact report to be completed. LAX spokesman Tom Winfrey guesses it will be at least two to three years before any substantial physical work can begin. But all the leading proposals for expansion, he says, call for a Green Line airport extension.

Generally, Winfrey says, the idea is to extend the line along the north side of Imperial Highway to the west side of the airport near Pershing Drive. From there, instead of waiting for a shuttle bus, travelers would step onto a "people mover" that circulates among the airport's passenger terminals. What sort of people mover?

"I don't believe there's been a technology identified," Winfrey says. Also, though airport planners have been quoted as guessing extension costs at $350 million to $400 million, Winfrey says he knows of no formal cost estimates. In short, we have a while to wait.

During that time, we might consider a few leading airports from the rest of the Western world.

In Amsterdam, Brussels, Frankfurt and Rome there are city-airport rail connections. In Paris, the Orly and Charles de Gaulle (Roissy) airports feature rail stations. In London, authorities haven't stopped at merely providing rail service that connects Heathrow Airport with the central city (the Piccadilly Line, which costs about $5 per person and takes 60 to 90 minutes). They've also got the Heathrow Express, which leaves the airport every 15 minutes, costs about $15 and delivers travelers 15 minutes later to centrally located Paddington Station.

On June 23, the London system was refined further, when operators opened a baggage check facility at Paddington Station. The move allows travelers headed for Heathrow to check their bags at the train station and also get their boarding passes from 27 participating airlines. By the time the train delivers those travelers to the airport, their two most onerous chores will be done. (London's other leading airport, Gatwick, is connected as well, a rail route to Victoria Station that takes about 30 minutes and costs about $15.)

In Chicago, the transit authority's Blue Line trains zip directly to the downtown Loop from O'Hare airport in 45 minutes. Trains run every five to 10 minutes during peak hours. In Atlanta, the MARTA system connects Hartsfield International Airport's south terminal to the downtown Five Points area. In Washington's National Airport, there's a Metro stop five minutes from the main terminal.

Just up the coast from Los Angeles, San Francisco's local officials have been fussing for 30 years over extending their BART system to San Francisco International Airport. Now a $1.2-billion project is underway to extend the line 8.7 miles from Colma to SFO and Millbrae. Target date for completion is New Year's Eve 2001.

If Los Angeles rail boosters want consolation, they might look to New York. There, after more than 30 years of wrangling over ways to improve public transport from Manhattan to Kennedy and La Guardia airports, the City Council on June 7 approved a compromise plan for an "airtrain" to Kennedy. The catch? To reach the airport from Manhattan and vice versa, travelers and their luggage will need to change trains at the Long Island Railroad's Jamaica Station. The new rail line is to be completed in 2003 at a projected cost of $1.5 billion.

Christopher Reynolds welcomes comments and suggestions, but cannot respond individually to letters and calls. Write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053, or send e-mail to chris.reynolds@latimes.com.

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