More U.S. airports add rail service to downtown

Still, airport-rail ridership in the USA is woefully low compared with other countries, says Andrew Sharp, director general of the U.K.-based International Air Rail Organisation. In many European and Asian airports, 20% to 30% of travelers get to and from the airport using rail. In the USA, ridership typically ranges from 2% to 5%, he says.

Airports actively pursuing a rail connection have several options:

•Add to existing systems.Seattle's Sound Transit, a voter-approved initiative passed in the late 1990s to create a regional light-rail system, is close to finishing its latest line. The Central Link, a 16-mile line running between downtown Seattle and Sea-Tac airport, will launch later this year. Its airport station is scheduled to open in December.

About a decade ago, Salt Lake City had no public rail. The Utah Transit Authority has since built a system that covers about 150 miles. A 5-mile downtown-to-airport connection is under construction and scheduled to open in 2012, says Michael Allegra of UTA. He expects about 6,000 riders daily when it opens.

One of the largest construction projects in the nation's capital is a 23-mile extension of the region's Metro to Washington Dulles. The new line will also serve the Tysons Corner area, Virginia's largest employment center. The completion date hasn't been determined.

•People-mover rail. Some airports have a metro station nearby but not within walking distance. To close the gap, they are looking to automated people-mover trains as a solution. Because people-movers typically run within airport grounds, airport authorities can tap funding sources that are available only for airport projects.

Phoenix Sky Harbor will use passenger facility charges to partially fund its Sky Train, a people-mover that will open in 2012 and connect to a nearby light-rail station. One airport station will contain an enclosed and air-conditioned moving walkway that will take travelers directly to the terminals.

BART this month approved funding for a 3.2-mile elevated people-mover that will connect BART's Coliseum station to Oakland International, replacing the current bus connection. It's scheduled to enter service in 2013. About 4,300 Bay Area passengers a day are expected.

Meanwhile, Miami-Dade Transit broke ground last week on a people-mover extension from the Earlington Heights station — the nearest stop to Miami International— to a ground transportation hub that's being built next to the airport. The rail link and the ground transportation hub are both expected to be completed in 2012.

Ongoing debates

Like most large construction projects, airport rail proposals face stiff headwinds. Opponents challenge funding sources and new taxes and cite preferences for cars and buses. But the central argument in most debates has centered around ridership, specifically whether airports have enough demand to justify millions in cost.

BART's connection to SFO, completed in 2003, has yet to reach BART's initial ridership forecast and is still not profitable. Prior to construction, BART projected there would be 17,800 average daily boardings to and from the airport by the year 2010. As of this month, SFO ridership was at about 11,000.

Frank Sterling and Juliet Ellis, activists in the Bay Area, also questioned BART's plans to spend $500 million for Oakland International's people-mover and its decision to charge $6 for the service vs. $3 for the current shuttle bus.

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