Shooting Down Trains
Standing before A ROOM FULL OF lobbyists, lawyers and airport contractors last week, the woman hired by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to run Los Angeles International Airport put her cards on the table regarding the Metro Green Line, the light-rail system that stops just shy of LAX.
In her usual no-nonsense fashion, Lydia Kennard bluntly warned her lunchtime audience that extending the Green Line to LAX could be a colossal waste of money. For one thing, she said, the project would cost at least a half billion dollars. For another, only one-third of 1 percent of the airport’s passengers use the Green Line.
“There are a lot of other, better things we can do with our money in terms of getting people to the airport,” she said.
The remarks, delivered at the Los Angeles Current Affairs Forum, defied a decade of conventional wisdom on L.A. transit, which long labeled a Green Line connection to the airport as a no-brainer. Yet Kennard had a point: Why would a passenger at Union Station bother taking the Red Line to the Blue Line to the Green Line, when the airport just started running a shuttle that runs to LAX from downtown Los Angeles in 35 minutes for only $3?
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Villaraigosa scored a minor policy success this year with the start of the Union Station Flyaway, a bus the color of pastel-blue Easter eggs that runs every 30 minutes. Ridership has steadily increased since it opened in March, thanks in part to a $1.2 million media blitz that featured the mayor’s mug on television commercials. But is the bus so successful that it renders the need for a Green Line extension to LAX obsolete?
The Green Line opened in 1995 to much derision, receiving the nickname “train to nowhere” because it detours south just as it approaches the airport, forcing passengers to take a shuttle to LAX from the Green Line’s Aviation Boulevard station.
The Flyaway is expected to serve 225,000 passengers this year, triple the original projection. Roughly 80 percent of passengers who take the Green Line to LAX are airport employees, while nearly 90 percent of riders on the Flyaway are airport travelers. And Kennard clearly implied that the cheaper alternative is the Union Station Flyaway, which costs $3.5 million annually to operate and already serves three times as many airport travelers as the Green Line. In an era of scarce transit funding, the less glamorous bus could free up funds for other major infrastructure projects.
The only thing is, Villaraigosa and Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl campaigned last year on an extension of the Green Line into LAX. On the day Kennard gave her address, Rosendahl scrambled to ensure that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority included reviewing a Green Line link to LAX as part of a larger package of rail studies. The MTA also promised to review the likelihood of an entirely new light-rail line, which would run diagonally from Union Station to LAX through Inglewood.
Rosendahl sounded unconvinced by Kennard’s remarks, saying the Green Line extension is only the first link in a larger system that would connect the South Bay with the Westside. The councilman already envisions extensions of the Green Line north to Santa Monica and south to Hawthorne Boulevard in Redondo Beach, reducing congestion on the 405 freeway. “I’ve talked to a lot of different transit people out there, and there are a lot of different opinions on it,” he said. “But the opinion I’m going with is that [the extension] makes sense, until somebody proves to me that it doesn’t through a scientific, independent study.”
The most recent plan for LAX and rail would have extended the Green Line by only one-tenth of a mile. But because the route would have served only LAX, it would have been funded exclusively by Los Angeles World Airports, not the MTA, said Patrick Tomcheck, the airport’s senior transportation engineer. Former Mayor James Hahn’s LAX modernization plan — part of which was scrapped by Villaraigosa last year — would have sent the Green Line 500 feet west, terminating at a transfer station where passengers would have boarded a new people mover circulating within the airport.
If the Green Line moves deeper into the airport, the Federal Aviation Administration will likely require that it go underground or, at minimum, down a trench to make sure that its electrical wires don’t interfere with jets on the airport’s south runway, Tomcheck said. Tunneling would cost at least $250 million per mile. Furthermore, the FAA would prohibit the city from funding a project that delivers passengers somewhere other than the airport.
By securing an MTA study, the Green Line extension could have a greater chance of receiving funds from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s $37 billion infrastructure bond, Rosendahl said. Still, Kennard argued that the public needs an education on the pluses and minuses of pushing rail to the airport.
“Just because people think it’s stupid that the Green Line stops at Aviation doesn’t mean we should connect it [to LAX],” she said.?
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