Rail Transit to Airports: Fair or Not?

Rail transit connections to airports are exceedingly popular in American Metropolitan Areas. Right now, a massive extension of the Washington Metro System is scheduled to reach the far-off Dulles Airport, and BART in the San Francisco Bay Area is preparing to build its controversial Oakland Airport Connector.

Billions and billions of dollars have gone to building extensions to airports, or designing new rail transit lines to connect to airports, like the BART to SFO Extension and Minneapolis’ Hiawatha Line, respectively.

The reason airport connections for rail transit are so popular is, yet again, purely political. Social fairness, or even cost-effectiveness, are generally not high priorities on airport extensions. Yes, it is nice to take the train to and from the airport instead of needing to park a car, but looking at the demographics and ridership numbers for airport stations tells an entirely different story. The cost of flying makes the average transit rider to airports much more affluent and white, and the vast majority of airport stations do not attract large numbers of riders, especially compared to stations in proximity to intercity rail stations.

The BART SFO Airport Extension is an especially ridiculous project due to the fare policies of the district. A large surcharge is added to all trips to the airport, effectively preventing airport employees from taking transit to work. The situation is so skewed that the airport began running a shuttle between Millbrae Station, the closest BART station with no surcharge, and the airport, so employees could avoid the surcharge.

With low ridership and disproportionately rich riders, airport extensions should not be a priority for rail transit in the United States. Instead, like I say in nearly every post,  rail investment in high-density urban area should be the focus of intercity rail transit going forward. Well-planned urban subway lines, like Los Angeles’ Red Line and the urban portions of the Washington Metro System, are effective at attracting a huge number of riders, and vastly changing land use patterns. The Westside Subway Extension in Los Angeles and many BART extensions I’ve previously suggested are far better uses of taxpayer money than, for example, the complicated and expensive extension of the Green Line (or Crenshaw Corridor) to LAX, the Oakland Airport Connector, or the BART connection to San Jose International Airport at the Santa Clara Station. Miami Metrorail’s airport extension also falls under this umbrella of ineffective transit investment, especially considering how underused the rest of that city’s metro system is.

Urban rail transit is the best use of limited transit capital funds, not suburban extensions and especially not airport extensions. End of story.


About Karl Tingwald

Civil engineering student at the University of Southern California with a severe transportation compulsion.

Posted on September 28, 2010, in BART, Los Angeles, Measure R, Policy and Politics, San Francisco Bay Area. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I’d only disagree on the LAX connection via the Crenshaw line. The line makes sense for network connectivity (Green to Expo and eventually Purple) and future economic development along the Crenshaw corridor independent of the fact that LAX is also on it. The rail wouldn’t even go to the terminals, so it can hardly be called a rail airport connection. It would serve the massive airport-related service industry workers along Century Blvd, however, which is a better target ridership anyway.

    In this case, the LAX station is a cherry on top of an already sweet dessert.

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