Why Airports Lack Incentive To Support Transit: The LAX-Rail History

In my 2014 book Railtown, I covered the sad saga of Los Angeles rail transit planners’ failed attempt to bring rail to LAX (Los Angeles International Airport). While local conspiracy theorists argued that the taxi industry had scuttled the plan, the reality was that the region was running out of money for rail anyway and lacked consensus on the best route to the airport.

But transit officials at the time also cited resistance from airport officials, as I described in the book:

Many local leaders blamed the airport for the impasse, arguing that airport leaders should have been willing to contribute funds for the extension. “If [the airport] had used passenger facility funds to meet the line, we would have gone there and made it happen,” said [transportation commissioner Jacki] Bacharach. “But we never got help from the airport.”  According to Ruth Galanter, who represented the area at the Los Angeles City Council, airport officials cited a federal law that prevented airport revenues from funding anything other than airport improvements. “The airlines said, ‘No way. The people using the Green Line have nothing to do with the airport, so you can’t take this money.’ If Bradley had been around for another ten years, he probably could have worked out a compromise.”

I thought of that history when I saw today’s news in the San Francisco Chronicle that airports across the country are losing money from lost fee revenue with the advent of Uber and Lyft:

Travelers’ changing habits, in fact, have begun to shake the airports’ financial underpinnings. Fewer people are parking cars at airports, using taxis or renting cars, according to a recent report from the National Academies Press.

Those trends are hurting airports, which depend on fees from parking lots, rental-car companies and taxis as their biggest source of revenue other than the fees paid by the airlines. The money they collect from ride-hailing services does not compensate for the lower revenues from the other sources.

While LAX officials denied trying to shoot down a rail connection in the 1990s, this article makes it clear that rail transit connections are not exactly in their financial interest.

In the end, LAX is about to get a rail connection from the under-construction Crenshaw Line, which will connect to a parking lot nearby and an eventual people mover around the airport. But it comes a generation after a failed effort in the early 1990s, with the airport’s economic interest likely an important factor.