As they tout a posh redo of the Tom Bradley International Terminal meant to reposition LAX as a travel hub for the new millennium, Los Angeles leaders are creating a potentially hobbling obstacle for the airport. The other big mass-transit infrastructure project nearby, the "Crenshaw/LAX" Metro light rail, will stop a full mile short of LAX.
That fact is almost certain to baffle and anger travelers to LAX, and help cement the old joke that "Los Angeles planning is an oxymoron."
Other cities are watching the situation with curiosity. Seattle Sound Transit spokesman Bruce Gray says his city's lone light-rail line was built from downtown straight to Sea-Tac Airport. It took "40 years of planning, voting and bickering" before its completion in 2009, and the airport stop is, predictably, "the busiest station on the line. People love it to get to and from the airport," he says.
Nothing like that is in store for LAX, a vast facility locked in by dense, urban development, and street congestion that seems destined to grow even worse.
On Jan. 4, Metro, the regional mass-transit agency, received final approval from the Federal Transit Administration to proceed with the $1.7 billion Crenshaw/LAX line, which will link the Expo Line and the Green Line.
Less than three weeks after that, Los Angeles World Airports spent a small fortune sending a lush, four-color PR brochure to more than 700,000 Angelenos, tucked inside the Los Angeles Times. It boasts that the striking new Bradley Terminal and other LAX projects will "lead Los Angeles into the future" and create tens of thousands of jobs.
There's no mention of how people will reach the traffic-gridlocked airport. It wouldn't have been good PR to detail how two of the region's key transit infrastructure projects, the LAX upgrade and the Crenshaw/LAX line, are being carefully planned — to pass each other in the night.
As Railway Gazette International delicately put it, the 8.5-mile-long Crenshaw/LAX line will serve "the area around" LAX.
But it won't go to LAX itself.
That decision by Metro mirrors the widely ridiculed 1992 decision by its predecessor agency, L.A. County Transportation Commission (LACTC), to abandon engineering work on a Green Line route to LAX. The Green Line instead went to El Segundo, where it delivers commuters to high-tech and aerospace companies.
Ruth Galanter, the L.A. City Council member representing the Westside at the time, told L.A. Weekly in 1995: "The fact that [the light rail] doesn't go to LAX is the model of stupidity."
So why isn't Metro spending the Crenshaw Line's hundreds of millions of dollars to build what everybody wants: a line that reaches LAX, just like rail lines in other cities, including Portland, Atlanta, Chicago and Seattle?
Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., will get a heavy-rail line soon, and it won't be "a mile away. [It] will easily be less than a quarter-mile from the terminals," says Washington Metro spokesman Dan Stessel.
In Los Angeles, project manager Roderick Diaz says Metro isn't building a line to LAX, in large part because the Metro board wanted to use an existing rail right-of-way since it's cheaper than trying to buy numerous parcels of land or tunnel underground.
But that old right-of-way doesn't go to LAX.
"The story is that we are getting closer," says Diaz, who adds that Metro's goal is to reach LAX.
Metro's Environmental Impact Report for the "Crenshaw/LAX" line repeats a 1991 idea: "An automated people mover to connect passengers to the regional transit system is being contemplated." The people mover, a conveyer belt–like system, would have to be constructed over or under the bustling streets around LAX — a major engineering feat that's at least a decade away.
Metro's Diaz insists that LAX officials had serious plans for the people mover years ago, when the Crenshaw/LAX line was being planned. But now, Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA) spokesman Marshall Lowe says in an email, LAX is merely "re-evaluating" the idea.
In fact, Metro's 13-member board of directors, made up almost entirely of elected city and county officials with little education in engineering or mass transit, would have to persuade LAX officials — who come under jurisdiction of a different board, all political appointees of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — to construct it.
Denny Schneider, president of the Alliance for a Regional Solution to Airport Congestion, predicts LAX will never build a people mover.
"Do I think they are going to complete it?" Schneider asks. "No."
If LAWA doesn't build it, Diaz says, Metro "will take on our own study to reach the airport."
Metro then could be faced with a job its predecessor couldn't handle two decades ago — trying to extend the Green Line to LAX.
Los Angeles seems destined to have two key mass-transit systems — LAX and light rail — aggravatingly close to one another but unconnected. Critics say the situation should be added to a long list of schemes that have failed to improve Southern California's mobility.
In 1967, Los Angeles served 17 million airport passengers per year, with the city's Department of Airports projecting a threefold jump within 10 years.
In 1968, city workers drew up designs for passenger helicopters that looked like buses with giant propellers. The plan was to zip travelers from LAX to a "Metroport" downtown.
The idea didn't take off, so to speak. But neither did a forward-thinking 1960s-era plan for a rapid-transit rail-line system.
Today, Schneider says, every passenger at LAX creates 1.7 trips per head — because the vast majority are dropped off and picked up by another person. The congestion has created a chronic ripple effect that often engulfs the 405 freeway corridor and much of the Westside.
There is, however, public transit to LAX — if you can figure out how to find it.
The Metro Bus Center is less than half a mile away, on 96th Street. Fourteen bus lines ferry passengers there from across the region, and LAX provides free shuttles from there directly to the terminals.
But when Angelenos need to get to LAX, they don't exclaim, "Just head to the Metro Bus Center!" the way San Franciscans say, "Just hop on BART." At LAX, the Metro Bus Center is promoted on two pieces of paper posted at information booths. Touch-screen kiosks don't even mention Metro Bus Center.
When the Weekly rode the free shuttle, Juan Rodriguez, a student at UCLA, said Metro Bus Center lines "are not advertised at all." Rodriguez took Culver City Bus 6 from Westwood to the airport for $1. The routes "are not on one aggregated site," Rodriguez says. "It's a little hard to go to different sites, but once you figure it out, it is OK."
Matthew Coogan, director of the New England Transportation Institute, in 2008 ranked Los Angeles behind notorious laggers New Orleans and Atlanta on public transit serving its airport. "So they want me to get on a people mover, then a rail car, then transfer twice with all my luggage, just to get downtown?" Coogan asks.
He says L.A. already has a good solution: Four FlyAway shuttle buses now run between the airport and pickup sites at Union Station, Van Nuys, Westwood and Irvine. "FlyAway is a really good system," he says.
LAX spent megabucks touting the Bradley Terminal in its slick new brochure. But the city barely advertises the often-praised FlyAway, which is operated by LAWA. The FlyAway system moves only about 1 million of the 59 million people who use LAX each year, and the Westwood line is under frequent threat of closure.
Coogan says L.A. needs to give Fly-Away shuttles more support and "lane priorities on the streets." That doesn't seem to be in the offing. In 2006, LAWA promised to open eight FlyAway lines. Six years later, there are four.
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The original story incorrectly stated that Dulles and Chicago airports have light-rail. The lines are heavy rail.