More U.S. airports add rail service to downtown

Riding the rails between downtown and the airport is becoming a reality for more U.S. travelers.

With their roadways jammed with cars and shuttles, a growing number of domestic airports are building or have plans for a rail link that will connect passengers from the terminals to regional metro-rail systems, allowing road warriors and vacationers to ditch their cars.

"There is a consensus building that this is a desirable piece of overall strategy to deal with ground transportation challenges," says Matthew Coogan, director of New England Transportation Institute who has written extensively about the subject.

Direct rail connections to Seattle-Tacoma and Dallas Love Field are expected to open later this year. Other large airports with an approved rail project that will be completed in the next few years: Salt Lake City, Phoenix Sky Harbor, Miami, Dallas/Fort Worth and Oakland.

Several other airports, including Denver, Washington Dulles and Los Angeles, have similar plans, but their projects are years from completion.

Airport rail links have long been popular in Europe and Asia. But only eight of the 20 largest U.S. airports, based on 2008 boardings, have rail service that drops passengers off within walking distance of the terminals: Atlanta, Chicago O'Hare, New YorkJohn F. Kennedy, San Francisco, Newark, Minneapolis, Boston and Philadelphia.

But a confluence of operational and economic factors have pushed the airport rail agenda forward in recent years despite opposition from taxi and bus proponents and fiscally conservative lawmakers.

With air traffic rising rapidly in recent years, airports are learning that simply building more parking lots and enlarging roadways aren't sustainable practices, Coogan says. Many U.S. airports have also embraced the green movement, budgeting more for programs that reduce their carbon footprint.

Greater availability of federal funding sources for airport rail is helping the cause. After a rigorous application process, Phoenix Sky Harbor persuaded the Federal Aviation Administration to let it use the passenger facility charge — a fee added to air tickets — to partially fund its rail project. Oakland received $70 million for its rail project from the federal economic stimulus package this year.

Popular rail services

Experts cite Washington, D.C.'s metro service to Washington Reagan National, Bay Area Rapid Transit's (BART) connection to San Francisco International and New York JFK's 8-mile AirTrain that links to the local subway as the most heavily used and popular systems in the USA. They also feed into established and far-reaching regional metro systems that are easy to use for travelers who forgo rental cars. Since it opened in 2003, AirTrain ridership has grown steadily, and about 4.75 million paid to ride the JFK train in 2008, according to the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey.

"When I fly to SFO, I always take the BART from the airport to my office in downtown San Francisco, and I love it," says business traveler Marc Belsher, a health care technology consultant. "It is inexpensive, reliable, relatively fast and ultraconvenient. It is the natural choice for me, especially in this economy."

Cleveland, St. Louis and Portland, Ore., run smaller rail systems that also provide direct-to-airport service. The number of travelers using Portland Metro's service to the airport grew 7.7% in 2008, says Steve Schreiber, aviation director for Portland International.

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