Dallas Evaluates Proposed Transit Connections to DFW Airport

New proposal would connect two commuter lines, a light rail line, and the airport people mover… outside of the airport

The Dallas Morning News reports that the North Texas Regional Transportation Council, which organizes transportation planning in the Dallas-Fort Worth region, is considering plans to realign the region’s proposed transit connections to the airport.

Currently, the area’s airport is the seventh largest in the world but lacks any kind of fixed guideway transit to get from the airport to the downtowns of Dallas or Fort Worth. The Trinity Railway Express, which connects the two cities via commuter rail, offers a bus service from a station several miles away, but that service is not particularly convenient. Meanwhile, the airport has a 5-mile long people mover called Skylink that since 2005 has connected the airport’s five terminals, but that service is within the security cordon and does not extend out from the airport.

Planners from both sides of the region have been formulating ways to connect their cities to the air hub, and there are several plans on the books. The 14-mile DART Orange Line light rail system will connect downtown Dallas and Irving with the airport in 2013; current plans have the system terminating between the airport’s terminals A and B. Meanwhile, Tarrant County is planning the Southwest-to-Northeast Rail Corridor, which will run from southwest Fort Worth to the airport along a former freight route; that system would connect with the Orange Line at the same stub terminal in the airport zone. Finally, a longer term project would use the “Cotton Belt” transit line between DFW and Plano, via Carrollton and Addision, to provide commuter trains to the airport by 2027.

There are several problems with those initial plans: they force commuters attempting to transfer from one commuter line to another to do so at the airport, which would cause confusion and added congestion there; they prevent through-running trains from Plano to Fort Worth; finally, they prevent the future expansion of the Orange light rail line because of the stub-end situation. Now under discussion, thus, is a proposal to connect the three lines and Skylink at a hub north of the airport that would allow through-running and an extension of the Orange Line. This would require an extension of Skylink, a realignment of the Orange Line, and an elimination of airport access by the Southwest-to-Northeast Corridor and the Cotten Belt Line. Below are schematic maps showing the proposed changes.

Dallas DFW Transit Access Dallas DFW Transit Access

In many ways, the changes are rational – like the Phoenix Sky Harbor’s proposed airport train, placing the airport transit hub off campus allows people commuting by transit but not attempting to access the airport fewer inconveniences, whereas airport commuters are simply suggested to transfer to an easily accessible people mover that goes to the terminals. It should be pointed out as well that many people arriving at the airport under the original transit plan would be required to switch to the terminal link buses anyway if they need to get to terminals C, D, or E, so the amount of time required to get to the gate for 3/5 of airport users will hardly increase. Meanwhile, the future expansion of the Orange Line and the interconnectivity of the two commuter rail lines are worthwhile considerations and make the new plan an improvement over the old.

That said, there will likely be roadblocks to this change in plans. For one, the city of Irving, just southeast of the airport, has been attracting developers to areas near future Orange Line stations by arguing that the light rail will serve the airport directly. Will developers still come if the Orange Line doesn’t actually connect to the airport. Yet, a direct connection to the airport’s people mover is pretty much equivalent to a direct connection to the airport, so I’m not convinced the change matters significantly for Irving.

Second, because the Skylink system is inside security, the connection from the new transit hub north of the airport to the terminals must be a separate system. Having check-in and bag carousels at the transit hub (and therefore allowing the new people mover line to be within security and connect to the existing system) is not feasible because it would require airlines to send bags to two separate baggage claims in completely different areas – not really a realizable idea. As a result, transit users would have to get out of the new Skylink connection between terminals A and B and then take a bus to terminals C, D, or E to check in; this would provide considerable inconvenience for people arriving to or departing from the airport on transit. Or, the new Skylink connection would have to extend to two more stations further into the airport to provide direct access to all of the terminals. Increasing the length of the Skylink line would also increase costs significantly.

Consequently, it seems hard to imagine changing the plans for DFW airport access unless the airport is willing to invest in a full-scale new Skylink line with stations between terminals A & B, between terminals C & D, and at terminal E. Otherwise, realigning the routes – which would provide significant improvements for non-airport transit users, would cause too much stress for air travelers on transit. Such a difficult connection would reduce ridership and make the transit-airport connection a bad idea.

2 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • What I’m missing in this discussion is what it would take to combine the SW2NE and Cotton Belt DMU lines into a single DMU line that passes through the airport. The Orange Line could also terminate at the airport.

    Alternatively, what about having the Orange Line pass through the airport to a transfer station with the Cotton Belt/SW2NE, instead of building a separate people mover?

  • One thing it would take would be a change in the FAA funding of fixed guideway access to airports to permit funding through lines. The last time I checked, they only funded terminating lines.

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