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LAX’s people mover will cost USD5 billion - is that price justified?

Analysis

The team of people behind the LAX Integrated Express Solutions (LINXS) project that will build the 2.25 mile Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) Automated People Mover (APM) project reached financial close on 11-Jun-2018.

This is evidently a major project, one that is valued at approximately USD4.9 billion by Los Angeles World Airports, as much as an entirely new mid-sized airport.

That is a high price. Can the price tag be justified?

Summary
  • The LAX Integrated Express Solutions (LINXS) project has reached financial close to build the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) Automated People Mover (APM) project, valued at approximately USD4.9 billion.
  • The project represents a shift towards public transport as a method of airport access and egress worldwide, as private vehicles are increasingly unwelcome at airports.
  • Rail links to airports, including APMs, are gaining importance in connecting passengers from arrival stations to distant terminals and car parks.
  • LAX will be connected to a new Metro station, Aviation/96th Street, via the Crenshaw Line, which will be connected to the APM, providing direct access to terminals 1-8.
  • The Metro/APM combination is the best alternative for LAX, as there is no heavy rail line in proximity to the airport.
  • The LINXS project is a public-private partnership (P3) scheme, and its success highlights the potential for P3 schemes to be used in other airport construction projects.

Summary:

  • An Automatic People Mover will be constructed at Los Angeles International Airport
  • It will connect with a new Metro station hosting two lines and transfer passengers between eight terminals
  • The expensive project is representative of a shift towards public transport as a method of airport access and egress worldwide

Private vehicles are increasingly unwelcome at airports; trains are more appropriate

The CAPA Air-Rail report, published in 2017, identified many airports around the world, including in the U.S., where public transport access and egress is in the process of being positioned as "more environmentally-friendly" and therefore preferable to transport by private vehicle and, accordingly, supported financially, particularly by the public sector.

Artist's impression of LAX APM

Strangely, "public transport" often includes transportation network companies such as Uber, or Lyft, as if their vehicles' gaseous emissions are somehow cleaner than those of private vehicles. And neither public transport nor peer-to-peer rental vehicles can produce the sort of revenues that airports have been used to generating from car parking.

Environmental issues, including emissions from vehicles, are a major issue in determining the legitimacy of airport expansion projects. The (recent) proceedings related to the construction of a third runway at London Heathrow Airport, are one example, where in order to gain the support of Members of Parliament the government has had to promise a package of measures to assuage the fears of affected communities and protect the environment.

This includes up to GBP2.6 billion for compensation, noise insulation and community amenities and 6.5 hour scheduled night flight bans and noise restrictions that will be legally enforceable but possibly unworkable at "the UK's only hub airport".

And that is just the noise side of the equation. The battle lines are being drawn up already by residents who will focus equally on the emissions that additional road traffic will bring, and their legality.

The 'people mover' is often the missing equation in the rail to gate conundrum

So, for all these reasons, rail links (preferably electric ones) to airports in the form of intercity lines or fast direct ones from and to 'downtown' are very much in the spotlight. But what is often missing is the mechanism by which passengers are moved from the arrival station to distant terminals, especially when they are many and widespread. Or simply, the catalyst to move them just between terminals and to and from car parks. This is the 'People Mover' or APM.

There is an excellent case study for the implementation of an APM - one costing GBP200 million - at London Luton Airport, the capital's fastest-growing airport in 2017. The problem here is that there are as yet insufficient trains to justify the APM - something the management is trying hard to remedy.

In LAX's case, the airport has nine mainly airline operated terminals, including the Tom Bradley International Terminal, served by shuttle buses, and there is some interconnection by over- or under-ground walkways but not in all cases.

Los Angeles International Airport total system, seats by terminal share, week commencing 11-Jun-2018

The airport is served by one light rail Metro station 'Aviation/LAX', around 1.25 miles (2 km) from the terminal buildings. There is a free shuttle bus from the station. The line was originally intended to connect directly to the airport terminals, but budgetary restraints, opposition from local taxi and parking lot owners and logistical issues impeded its progress.

Aviation/LAX is on the Green Line, which connects with the Blue Line to the Downtown 7th Street/Metro Center interchange and to the Silver Line which also runs into Downtown. The journey time to downtown, around 45 minutes, is roughly the same as on the Piccadilly Line from Heathrow Airport to central London, or the RER train from Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport to central Paris.

A new Metro line and station will improve LAX's public transport access enormously

When the under-construction 8.5 mile (13.6 km) north-south Crenshaw Line is completed it will operate from Aviation/LAX northwards to connect with the Expo Line, which operates westwards from downtown through heavily populated suburbs to Santa Monica, thus bypassing the need to go into Downtown for those passengers. The Green Line will be extended northwards at the same time.

Truncated map showing the Green Line, Aviation/ LAX station and its connections to downtown (Civic Centre/Union Station) and the under-construction Crenshaw Line (between Mariposa and Expo/Crenshaw)

In addition, and this is the key, a new USD200 million station - Aviation/96th Street (closer to the terminals and on the new Crenshaw Line) - is under construction and, vitally, will be connected to the automatic people mover, which was labelled the "Airport Metro Connector", connecting terminals 1-8 directly to the light rail systems via six stations.

Completion of the station was envisaged for 2024 but it should now open in 2021. The station will handle both Green Line and Crenshaw Line trains and will be a terminal station for both.

These developments bring LAX in line with many other airports around the U.S. (over 20) and worldwide (at least 50) where there are people movers serving either as a 'last mile' connector from a main rail station, or as an inter-terminal connector or in very rare cases both.

It will be possible to access LAX from either of two main directions, north and east, and from/to which all other Metro lines are accessible with a maximum of three changes and to change directly onto an APM to all terminals, leaving every two minutes and with a maximum journey time of 10 minutes. One of the APM stations is also an intermodal (bus) station.

There will be no heavy rail line into LAX; this Metro/APM combination is the best alternative

In the absence of a heavy rail line in proximity to the airport, this is the best alternative available to connect LAX's terminals with the city's central Union Station.

While the California High-Speed Rail (CHSR) line from Sacramento to Anaheim will pass through Los Angeles County, stations are planned close to Hollywood Burbank and Ontario International airports (in two phases) rather, strangely, than LAX.

The line of the CHSR through Los Angeles, missing LAX

Intriguingly, there is no mention of the APM connecting with parking lots. Indeed over 2,000 car parking spaces are being removed ready for the next round of construction. Presumably, opposition from lot operators has dissipated. On the other hand, a consolidated Car Rental Centre is included in the overall project cost.

The entire project should be completed well in advance of the 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles; trains and AMP should be dancing together by 2023.

If P3 schemes can deliver this project it is clear they could - and should - be used more frequently for other airport construction projects

The financial closure on the project includes all design, construction, commissioning, operations and maintenance costs over the 30 year concession period. Financing is essentially private under a P3 scheme, including approximately USD1.2 billion in Private Activity Bonds, USD263 million in bank debt, and private partner equity.

The LINXS team is a partly international one comprised of Fluor, ACS Infrastructure Development, Balfour Beatty, Bombardier Transportation, Dragados USA, Flatiron and Hochtief PPP Solutions.

The evident question arising out of this must be: if private firms can come together so easily for a project of this nature, which has a captive audience, advertising potential but few other obvious revenue lines, why can't they do so to solve the U.S.'s fundamental airport infrastructure issues?

They have been "invited" to do so by President Trump's Feb-2018 Infrastructure Plan and there are now models in place in airports such as New York LaGuardia and Denver.

The original question - "can the price tag be justified" - should be answered affirmatively. There is no opportunity cost as such. With the completion of work on the Bradley Terminal within the last few years and the announcement in Jun-2018 of a further USD1.86 billion to be spent on Delta terminal projects, LAX is getting ahead of the game where its terminal capacity and capability are concerned. No new airports are likely to be built, in Los Angeles or anywhere else in the U.S., in the foreseeable future, only small general aviation-to-commercial conversions.

In that light, improving enormously both transport to and from, and transport within what is the US' second busiest airport and doing it through a collaborative P3 scheme, is to be applauded.

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