Conductor, Please Drop Me Off a Mile From the Airport

In California, We Wouldn’t Dream of Connecting Our Trains and Planes. That’d Be Too Far-Sighted.

A riddle. If you land at a big-city airport and there’s no train there, where are you?

Answer: California.

Yes, San Francisco, I know you’re the exception, with a BART train stop inside San Francisco International Airport (SFO). But the California rule is that we’ll invest billions in our airports and billions in our trains, but we wouldn’t dream of directly connecting the two.

Instead, we taunt those who dare to dream.

How else to explain the fact that so many of California’s urban trains and trolleys come close to the airports—but not close enough to take you all the way there?

You can see planes coming in to land at San Diego’s Lindbergh Field as you ride the city’s charming trolleys, but the trolley won’t take you to the airport. In San Jose, two train systems—the Metro Light Rail and the Caltrain—run near the airport, but a shuttle bus, the Airport Flyer, is required to reach them. In Southern California, the Metro blue line trains go to Long Beach, but not to its airport. The Metrolink commuter rail stops about a mile from the Ontario airport.

Some places are making progress in forging links, but even then there are caveats. Oakland is building a cable car connection between its airport and the nearby BART station—better than nothing, but it will require switching trains. Sacramento has begun a light rail extension that is supposed to reach its airport someday, but timing and funding are uncertain. Burbank Airport has a stop on the commuter rail Metrolink, but Metrolink trains run infrequently and stop running early. (Today, as I write this, the last train to downtown L.A. leaves the airport at 5:53 p.m.) Even San Francisco’s BART train doesn’t go south of SFO into the heart of the Silicon Valley. You have to take a BART train north to the Caltrain commuter rail heading south. A 12-minute drive by car to San Mateo can take more than an hour by rail.

For Californians, all these failures to connect, considered in isolation, may seem trifling. But taken together, they represent a form of self-sabotage for a place that is at once dependent on its links to the world—and too far away from that world.

The writer Carey McWilliams described Southern California as “an island on the land,” but the term applies to the entire state. And the Island of California needs the best possible transportation connections both to get out-of-state visitors to their destinations (trade and tourism and the highly mobile technology industry are our economic anchors) and to get ourselves around so we can run the state (two-thirds of Californians have to get on a plane if they want to visit their state Capitol).

But in today’s California, we are cheap, and the infrastructure we need is expensive. When we build, we prioritize what’s easy over what’s important. California is about to start high-speed rail by building a stretch of tracks in the less populated San Joaquin Valley, where getting started is relatively easy. The connections of the rail to urban transit centers—which are more difficult and expensive, and also more important and valuable—come later.

Nowhere is this mindset more evident than at California’s busiest airport, LAX. A generation ago, L.A.’s subway system built a line—the Green Line—with a station that touches the edge of the airport property but doesn’t go into the airport. There is a shuttle bus, but few passengers use it, and with good reason. When I lived in Redondo Beach, a 10-minute drive south of the airport, getting home from LAX via shuttle bus and train took an hour.

Today, Los Angeles has a chance for redemption. But L.A. may blow it. Another Metro rail line is being extended to the LAX area, but, of the options being considered by transportation and airport authorities, two would end the rail line at the corner of Aviation and Century Boulevards, more than a mile away from the airport. Given the billions being spent on airport modernization and Metro rail expansion, that’s mind-blowing.

The stated reason for stopping, again, at the airport doorstep? Costs of course. Taking the train into the airport would cost more than $1 billion, and there are only $200 million or so in existing tax dollars for a connection. If the rail line stops short of the airport, riders could switch from the train to a people mover of some sort (that is scheduled to be built in 2028).

Or they could walk.

One recent night, I parked my car at a gas station at the corner of Aviation and Century and walked to Terminal 1. I passed by fortress-like airport hotels, parking lots, and a Carl’s Jr. The sidewalk was barely lit, and I tasted the exhaust as motorists on Century sped past me at 50 mph. The walk took me 25 minutes, and I wasn’t carrying any luggage other than a notebook and a cellphone.

This is life in the Great California Train Tease. We’re spending hundreds of billions on rail and airports. And we still keep missing our connections.


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