Wrapping up a Los Angeles vacation and an hourlong, two-train trek from downtown, Benjamin Levert and his slightly harried wife and daughters just wanted to check in for their flight back to France. Exiting the Metro Green Line at the Aviation/LAX station, they towed their four suitcases down a long escalator.
To a parking lot.
“Where is the terminal?” Levert asked his wife in French, looking around and raising his voice over the whoosh of overhead traffic on the 105 Freeway. “What kind of an airport is this?”
The Leverts had stumbled into what critics consider one of L.A.'s great planning failures: a $1-billion train that stops 2.5 miles from passenger terminals of the nation’s third-busiest airport.
Now, a generation after the Green Line earned the nickname “the train to nowhere,” planners in the midst of a multibillion-dollar rail boom are preparing to break ground on a second LAX-adjacent train that is facing similar issues — and offering a new opportunity to complete a key missing link in the region’s sprawling 87.7-mile commuter rail network.
In recent decades, most major cities — including Chicago, Atlanta and Washington — have built transit lines that deliver travelers into airport terminals. New York City, Denver and San Francisco have built intra-terminal people-mover systems.
“Comparably speaking, L.A. just doesn’t meet large metropolitan standards, never mind major metropolis standards,” said Genevieve Giuliano, director of Metrans, a transportation research center at USC. A smoother rail link to LAX would particularly benefit tourists and business travelers, she said.
The $2.06-billion north-south Crenshaw Line will connect the Mid-City Expo Line with the South Bay’s Green Line. When it opens, now slated for 2019, it will pass 1.5 miles east of the LAX terminals, with a stop at Century and Aviation boulevards. It will not have an LAX connection, other than shuttles, for up to nine more years, depending on how a series of design and financing issues are resolved.
Los Angeles World Airports and Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials are considering a direct extension of the light-rail system or a separate people-mover system that would circulate inside the airport. A decision on a route and the type of system that will be built is expected late next year. If extra money can be secured and environmental reviews finished quickly, officials say, the light-rail extension could open as soon as 2020.
But many basic questions remain unanswered, including how many people would use it and how ridership would be affected by the various options.
“People often tell us, ‘Just build it, already,’ ” said Roderick Diaz, project director for the Airport Metro Connector. “But they all disagree on what ‘it’ is. It’s not a simple thing to do.”
The original Green Line design drafted in the 1980s included an LAX extension. But Metro officials couldn’t decide where the station should go inside the terminal complex and cut the project from their 20-year plan. Ultimately, the project ran out of money when the price tag on the 20-mile Norwalk-to-Redondo Beach line tripled. Further complicating plans, the Federal Aviation Administration worried that an extension of the Green Line, which is elevated south of the airport, might interfere with airport navigation and runway sightlines.
Echoes of some of the same issues can be heard in the current debate on the Crenshaw Line. It will run east of the airport because planners can use a right-of-way from an abandoned freight train line, said Metro’s Deputy Chief Executive Paul Taylor.
Preliminary Metro studies have shown that ridership would be highest if the airport link did not require passengers to make an additional transfer to get to the terminal.
“What’s best is what’s most seamless,” Giuliano said. “I don’t think people care what they’re riding on, but what they really don’t like is transfer, transfer, transfer.”
Airport staff favors a people-mover that would extend out of the airport to a proposed 14-acre transit hub near what is now Parking Lot C. To meet the transit hub, the Crenshaw Line would have to veer west by one mile. Metro research has shown that would cost slightly more but would not increase ridership, compared with a people-mover system that would connect to the Crenshaw Line and Green Line at Aviation Boulevard, Diaz said.
Mayor Eric Garcetti recently said on social news website Reddit that a people-mover from “a close-by line” could be the most viable option.
One advantage of a people-mover system would be that stops could be included at three to five terminals, according to one environmental review. But the driverless system might need to be elevated as high as 20 feet, which could block some views of the futuristic Theme Building. The FAA has not weighed in on the design but could raise objections if construction interferes with navigational aids or views from the control tower.
Whatever option is chosen to get passengers to LAX, the added cost is estimated to be about $1 billion. Metro will shoulder more of the costs if officials opt to bring light-rail trains directly under the terminal complex, Diaz said. That would require tunneling beneath a warren of wires and utility lines. The final price tag for a people-mover could vary significantly, depending on the number of stops at airline terminals.
About a third of the required funding for the LAX connector project has been set aside from a transportation sales tax increase approved by county voters in 2008. Metro hopes the remainder can be secured from airport revenue, the federal government or a public-private partnership.
In the Aviation/LAX parking lot last week, the Levert family boarded a shuttle bus and reached the ticket counter 20 minutes later than planned. They were the only air travelers on the shuttle, surrounded by airport and airline employees in crisp navy blazers, white chef jackets and fluorescent vests.
The regular riders said they want a smoother connection. “It’s cool that it will come closer. But you’ll still have to go through the hassle of transferring,” said Andre Garcia, 20, a baggage handler from Watts whose commute from the Willowbrook station to the central terminal takes 45 minutes.
“It’s extremely inconvenient unless it goes right where you need to go,” said Michael Mercado, 23, a chef at a restaurant inside the Delta terminal.
Mercado recalled riding the Green Line on his first day on the job nearly a year ago. He noticed an unfinished stub of track and concrete branching off at the LAX station, pointing toward the airport. It’s a regular reminder of where the rail system doesn’t yet go.