Despite my issues with how new transit projects are implemented in America today, I’m generally happy to see them built. Even though they’re flawed, heavily-subsidized government creations, they make upzoning more palatable and can later be sold off and privately managed. There’s a lot I’d do differently, but on net I think most new transit projects are a step, however imperfect, in the direction of market urbanism. But there’s at least one form of transit that I can almost never get behind: the airport connector.
The airport connector is a special beast of a rail-based transit system that’s a relatively recent phenomenon outside of transit-dense regions like Western Europe and Japan. So manifestly wasteful that it generates more animosity towards mass transit than it does riders, it’s a project that only politicians and unions could love. Unlike more integrated networks where the airport is just one station on an otherwise viable route (like Philadelphia’s Airport Line or DC’s proposed Silver Line), airport connectors generally serve only the airport and one local hub. With no purpose other than to get people in and out of the airport, they provide neither ancillary transit benefits nor TOD opportunities. Oftentimes they don’t even reach downtown, acting instead like glorified park-and-rides.
The most egregious example in the US would have to be BART’s proposed Oakland Airport Connector. The rail line will extend for a little more than three miles, replacing what is now a bus routes. The $3 fare will double, along with the half billion dollars that it will cost the government. Like the current bus route, it will only connect Oakland’s airport to the nearest BART station with no intermediate stops. It’s opposed by transit activists, who would rather convert the bus into a dedicated BRT lane and spend the rest of the half billion elsewhere. Its support seems to lie entirely with unions eager for the work, and one commissioner actually called it “too big to fail”…as an endorsement of the project! Even the feds knew better and took back their $70 million in funding, citing its impact (or lack thereof) on Oakland’s low-income population. Still, the city is pressing froward with the guaranteed boondoggle and is continuing to allocate funds for it, though transit activists vow to keep fighting it.
Oakland is hardly alone, with the Rhode Island DOT recently reaching a deal on its $267 million “Interlink” project, which entails building a station at the airport on an existing line, along with a commuter parking garage and a rental car facility. The station is only expected to see six trains a day initially, which is probably for the best since Providence’s T. F. Green Airport isn’t exactly O’Hare. No word on whether any additional density is being allowed around the new station, but something tells me the answer is no. New York’s five-destination Stewart Airport could also snag a rail line, as might a couple of other airports if Obama’s high-speed rail plans ever see the light of day – and I doubt they will, but that won’t stop consultants from being paid to consider them.
America, however, has no monopoly on ineffective government, and like all forms of excess, the Chinese have perfected the genre with their maglev airport connector in Shanghai. It literally levitates above a track through a system of magnets, and with only air friction it can achieve speeds of up to 268 mph. The Chinese government can acquire land at zero cost and labor is cheap, so it only cost $1.3 billion to build, but it makes up for its low cost in utter uselessness: in addition to being too expensive for ordinary Chinese to ride, it doesn’t even take you downtown – “it virtually goes nowhere,” as the Asia Times puts it. The project can be seen in the broader context of Shanghai’s misguided rivalry with Hong Kong, where it seeks to copy the trappings of the wealthy city-state while avoiding the attendant economic liberalization.
There may be a limited place for short airport connectors in large, transit-rich cities like New York City, but many of the projects turn out to be far too expensive for the limited service that they provide. They are often a sort of cargo cult urbanism that seeks to emulate the frills of good transit systems isn’t willing to make the hard decisions necessary to actually build a robust network and allow the density to fill it. In the case of the the Providence airport, lawmakers said they hoped the station would attract international service to the currently domestic-only airport – as if Providence can acquire the amenities of a big city without allowing itself to become one. Airport connectors instead are often little more than highly inefficient subsidies to the airline industry, wealthy frequent fliers, and construction unions – which, now that I think about it, might explain why legislators love them so much.