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LAX-downtown rail plan may finally be leaving the station

Times Staff Writer

They heaped scorn on Angelenos in 1995 when we introduced a light-rail route that bypassed the region’s biggest airport. MTA’s Green Line trains, originating in Norwalk, pulled up two miles shy of LAX before veering south toward Redondo Beach.

“A train to nowhere,” critics called it.

Since then, New York, Newark, N.J., San Francisco and Minneapolis have created airport-to-city rail links. Amtrak just opened a station near Milwaukee’s airport where fliers can board trains to downtown.

And LAX? A decade later, we’re still two miles short. No direct train to downtown. Not even a monorail to shuttle us among the sprawling airport’s seven terminals.

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That may be changing. An $11-billion LAX modernization plan approved last month by the Los Angeles City Council calls for a people-mover system that would run from the Green Line’s Aviation Station to the airport, then loop around the terminals.

The precise route is not yet determined, and the project is being challenged in court. But at least there’s hope that a people mover could be in place by, say, 2010.

It couldn’t come too soon, I’ve decided, after testing some current transit options.

Fewer than 2% of LAX passengers appear to use the Green Line to go to and from the airport, said Nancy Suey Castles, LAX spokeswoman.

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I can see why.

To get from LAX to downtown’s Union Station -- about 20 miles -- on a weekday morning this month, I caught a free “G” shuttle bus at 7:35 a.m. from the airport’s No. 7 terminal to the Aviation Station. I took the Green Line to the Blue Line, then transferred again to the Red Line. One bus, three trains. Cost: $3 with a Metro day pass.

The Aviation Station didn’t direct me downtown. The platform sign said “To I-105/I-605.” I had to laugh: Even the rail signs in L.A. refer to freeways. How could a visitor figure this out?

Still, there were elevators at each connection, and the trip time wasn’t bad. With nearly perfect timing -- less than five minutes’ wait at each station -- it totaled one hour, seven minutes in rush hour. That was 19 minutes longer than my car trip two days later at the same time on the same route.

MTA buses were another story.

I passed on the No. 42 because it was a local bus that a shuttle-bus driver said once took one hour, 53 minutes to get her from LAX to Union Station. It also stopped in some dicey neighborhoods.

So I tried the No. 439, an express bus recommended by airport staff. After hopping on a free “C” shuttle from the terminal to the airport’s bus center, I waited 20 minutes for the 439. Starting at 7:59 a.m., it wound through Westchester and Culver City, then crawled through rush-hour traffic on La Cienega Boulevard before finally hitting Interstate 10 at Washington Boulevard.

Total trip time to Union Station: two hours, four minutes. Cost: $1.75.

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That takes us back to the Green Line. An LAX people mover would smooth the trip but wouldn’t solve the three-train hassle. So let’s revisit this question: Why doesn’t the Green Line go to the airport?

The main reason, LAX spokeswoman Castles said, is that the line was designed for a different purpose: to take workers to once-bustling aerospace businesses in the South Bay. Commuters didn’t want to go through LAX or jostle with luggage-toting fliers, according to marketing studies at the time.

Over the years, plans for a spur to airport parking lot C were stymied by budget shortfalls and disagreements. The Federal Aviation Administration fretted that overhead train wires could endanger low-flying aircraft. It was rumored that LAX officials resisted rail to protect airport parking revenues, which they deny.

On the contrary, Castles said, “We’re trying to get people out of their cars.”

Meanwhile, other airports have pressed forward. Some of their recent transit additions:

* New York: Since December 2003, the AirTrain has been whisking passengers from terminal to terminal at JFK. It then splits into two branches, heading to Howard Beach (where it links to the A train into Manhattan) or to Jamaica Station (with links to the Long Island Rail Road and several subway lines).

Getting into Manhattan this way takes about an hour; it may take longer after a Jan. 23 fire that affected the A and C trains. The cost: $7 each way.

Spend a little more, and you’ll get into Manhattan in less than an hour ... from New Jersey. At Newark International Airport, the 3-year-old AirTrain links to a station where passengers can connect with trains to New York’s Penn Station ($11.55) and Newark’s Penn Station, among other options.

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* San Francisco: In summer 2003, Bay Area Rapid Transit at last arrived at this city’s airport. BART rides downtown cost less than $5 and take about half an hour. Oakland’s airport runs a shuttle to BART trains.

* Minneapolis: This city last month added Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to its new 12-mile light-rail system. There are stations at both terminals. The trip from the airport to downtown Minneapolis takes about 25 minutes.

You can also make an 11-minute run to Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., which bills itself as America’s largest retail and entertainment complex. Fares start at $1.25.

* Milwaukee: Amtrak opened a station Jan 18 near Mitchell International Airport on its Hiawatha line, which runs between Milwaukee and Chicago.(A free bus runs between the rail station and the airport.)

From Mitchell, you can reach downtown Milwaukee in less than 20 minutes; the fare is $6. Or you can ride all the way to downtown Chicago, about 90 miles away, in about one hour, 15 minutes; the fare is $20. The downside in either case: The train runs only seven times a day.

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Hear more tips from Jane Engle on Travel Insider topics at latimes.com/engle. She welcomes comments but can’t respond individually to letters and calls. Write to Travel Insider, L.A. Times, 202 W. 1st St., L.A., CA 90012, or e-mail jane.engle@latimes.com.


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