Airport Chicago Metro Rail

Chicago’s Block 37 Superstation, Designed for Quick Airport Service, Unfinished and Unused

» A long-held plan for quick connections to Midway and O’Hare, delayed indefinitely, is a reflection of poor thinking at City Hall and its transit authority.

I would support premium rail service only if it brought significant new operating dollars, capital funding, or other efficiencies to CTA,” wrote Carole Brown, then Chairman of the Chicago Transit Authority, in October 2006. “I should note that I’m not at all interested in non-express ‘direct’ service absent a viable plan to do real express service.”

After spending $250 million on a new “superstation” under the Block 37 development, the City of Chicago is left with neither the express service Brown desired, nor even the ‘direct’ service she feared. CTA does not dispose of a track connection between Red and Blue subway lines, one of the primary goals of the project. Rather, it has a mothballed station that isn’t ready for any use, let alone express trains to the region’s airports. A recent news report from CBS2 raises questions about whether the city is attempting to hide the evidence that it has built anything at all.

Local observers point to the “curse” of Block 37, arguing that the failure of the city to get the station up and running was somehow a result of fate. The overall complex, which has been in planning for decades, will open this fall with office space and 60 retailers, but the developer suffered a major defeat last month when the Loews chain decided not to build a hotel on the site, despite being handed the building plot in the core of the downtown Loop for one dollar.

But the failure of Block 37 and the affiliated superstation is no matter of fate — it is a reflection of misplaced priorities at Chicago City Hall and a poor response to the market. Mayor Richard Daley encouraged the developer to move forward with the dual objectives of building a tower on the city’s last major available downtown parcel and of linking the city center more quickly to airports. The first idea will come to partial realization later this year, though its stature has been dimmed significantly by the failure of the real estate market in Chicago, like almost everywhere.

The airport connection, however, never seemed fully thought out. Today, commuters can travel from the Clark/Lake Station downtown to O’Hare Airport in 40 minutes on the Blue Line or to Midway Airport in 30 minutes on the Orange Line; either trip costs just $2.25. Though the city’s connections between its airport rail stations and passenger terminals are not ideal, service is reliable and well-used. By 2008, the city was proposing that a private entity operate the new express link from Block 37 to O’Hare and Midway; the trip would take just 15 minutes less than existing service, but cost an outrageous $17. Check-in counters would be available in the basement of the Block 37 facility, allowing commuters to rid themselves of their bags downtown. The airport express trains would travel along existing heavy rail tracks shared with the Blue and Orange Lines.

Even if the idea had some validity — Chicago’s airports attract a number of business travelers who might be interested in the faster service — CTA was never prepared to provide the tracks for express trains. There was some discussion a few years back about adding tracks along the Blue Line that would allow express trains to bypass locals, but no money was ever provided. Carole Brown’s vision of using the airport link as a motivator to attract more funding to aid CTA operate more banal services fell flat. As happens with many airport-connector projects, the project morphed from a “money-maker” to a strain on the rest of the system, $100 million over initial cost estimates, too expensive for the city to continue construction.

Mayor Daley reacted to the news in 2008 that the project would have to be delayed indefinitely by stating that “You can’t build a station without changing the technology. I told them they had to stop. … It’s not going to be fit for the technology of this century. That’s one of the reasons we held it up.” It’s unclear what technological limitations Mr. Daley was referring to, because the primary problem here was far more simple: the city had never allocated the money to improve the mainline track on the Blue and Orange Lines in parallel with the construction of the superstation.

What private operator would agree to run a subway from the Loop to one of the airports if it had to run behind regular Blue Line trains and operate on their schedule?

There were other alternatives if airport access was one of the city’s main priorities: existing Metra commuter rail tracks run directly from downtown; buying DMU rail cars and building surface-level stations near the airports would have cost a lot less than the halfhearted attempt to construct a massive underground terminal in the heart of the city. Those trains would have probably been faster than even the dead-on-arrival express service using existing CTA tracks.

Why was the airport link considered so important by the city’s planners? Was the new facility worth $300 million in construction costs, even if it had become operational? The money certainly could have gone elsewhere. CTA has a number of other projects in construction and planning, including the elimination of slow zones throughout the system, the Circle Line, and three extensions of existing lines. Chicago may well have lost out on its attempt to win the 2016 Olympics because of the deficiencies in its local transit offerings, not necessarily its airport access, which is acceptable.

Before it can invest in under-performing extravagances like better links to O’Hare and Midway, CTA demands an infusion of cash to fulfill basic needs. The ill-conceived superstation that will not be used for years should have never been a priority.

Airport New York

Lavishing Money on Access to Stewart Airport

Stewart Airport Transit AccessNew York State has many transit needs, but this shouldn’t be one of them.

For years, New York City’s airports have suffered from massive congestion, with the airspace over the city continually trapped in traffic. Delays at Kennedy, LaGuardia, or Newark Liberty airports have the tendency to back up the entire American flight system. As a result, in 2007, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the other New York area airports, agreed to take over operations of Stewart International, an under-utilized facility located in Orange County dozens of miles north of Manhattan. Stewart would serve as a new base for air service expansion.

The problem is that the airport is difficult to get to, not only because it’s far from New York’s 8 million inhabitants, but also because it offers no direct public transit links. In 2007, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority began a study of possible connections to the airport, pinpointing ferry, commuter rail, light rail, and bus rapid transit as potential options. Two years later, the MTA is closing in on a final decision about how to make the link.

To hear MTA talk about this project, you’d think that it’s also about improving service to Upstate New York, providing residents of Orange, Putnam, Ulster, Dutchess, and Rockland Counties a new airport from which to take flights. An additional benefit of improving links to Stewart would be improved transit for any commutes in the region. MTA argues that this area is the fastest-growing in New York State and therefore that it needs more transit.

But here’s the truth: of the 84 million trips taken on Metro-North commuter rail lines last year, only 2 million were made on the west side of the river, where the airport lies. Only 500 daily passengers ride the ferry between Newburgh on the west side of the river to Beacon on the east, where there’s access to Metro-North’s quicker Hudson Line. In other words, this area may be growing, but it’s still a very small travel market. Improved transit links in the region are going to affect a very small number of people. This project is really about connecting passengers in New York City to the airport.

Current options, according to the MTA, include constructing a dedicated rail link between the Stewart Mills Station on the Metro-North Port Jervis Line (west side) and improving bus service through new express service from Manhattan and from the surrounding counties. A ferry to New York City has been eliminated because it would take too long and be too expensive; a rail link to the Metro-North Hudson Line across the river has been removed from consideration because of cost and environmental concerns. The project, according to an article back in 2007, could cost one billion dollars.

Ben over at Second Avenue Sagas has written in both 2007 and 2008 on the poor thinking behind this project. The airport is quite far away from the city’s population centers and will therefore have difficulty attracting crowds from the city; the airport’s current offerings of flights to just five destinations — Philadelphia, Atlanta, Orlando, Ft. Lauderdale, and Detroit — indicate that a serious increase in demand there from locals is unlikely over the next few years. Few commuters are going to be willing ride the 90 minute plus train between Penn Station and the airport, so why is this link a priority? It certainly doesn’t seem likely to cut down on air congestion.

Let’s imagine that the $1 billion existed to build this project, unlikely enough considering the MTA’s dismal fiscal situation. Wouldn’t it make more sense, from the perspective of improving transit, to spend it on desperately needed projects such as the Second Avenue Subway? People in Orange County — population 350,000 — may want more transit, but so do the roughly 350,000 people who live in East Harlem and the Upper East Side, and the latter group, to say the least, is far more likely to use public transportation than the former. Certainly, cheap express buses should be considered, but a rail link seems completely unnecessary.

But what about relieving congestion at New York’s airports? As I already pointed out, I’m not sure how many people downstate are going to be willing to make the commute up to Stewart, so an investment there may be pointless. Here’s another option, however: invest the $1 billion in New York’s high-speed rail program, reducing the dependence of New Yorkers on planes to get to Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, and even Montréal and Toronto. Those destinations collectively account for 202 daily departures from New York area airports (109 to New York State destinations, 93 to Canadian destinations). Eliminating half of those flights would open up the equivalent of a full hour of rush-hour capacity at JFK Airport. Talk about congestion relief!

Image above: Stewart Airport Access map, from Metropolitan Transportation Authority


The Airport-Transit Connection

Transit Airport Access

Direct connections to airports have almost always played a major role in the development of transit systems. For the business and political leaders who typically take the most important roles in deciding how money for new mass transit investments will be used, a one-seat ride between downtown and the airport often takes highest priority.

There is little doubt that the primacy given to rail connections to airports is unjust from the socio-economic perspective. After all, because of the cost of flying, most people needing to get to and from airports are wealthy. Choosing to invest in a mass transit extension to an airport basically means further subsidizing the already rich, since transit systems almost universally charge their riders less than the service costs.

But airport transit extensions remain a priority for municipal leaders exactly because airports tend to attract any city’s most wealthy and powerful. Demonstrating the city’s technological prowess with a speedy and efficient mass transit system to the airport becomes an important tool for economic development. So cities often spend money on improving connections to airports before investing in the needs of more transit-dependent constituencies.

And in fact, all over the country, big mass transit extensions are being considered to get people easily from city downtowns to their respective airports. In the Washington, DC region, the Dulles Metrorail project will create a new Silver Line that ferries passengers from downtown D.C., through Arlington, Virginia, and on to Dulles Airport. This heavy rail extension will also provide service to the popular Tyson’s Corner section of Fairfax, Virginia, so the purpose of the extension is more than to simply serve the airport. In Los Angeles, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa recently announced a plan to remake his city’s airport and extend the Green Light Rail Line to the terminals. In Miami, a new Intermodal Center will serve as a connection point between the city’s metro, its commuter rail system, and the people mover from the airport. Recently, Honolulu has been considering altering the path of its proposed rail system to provide better service to the airport than is currently planned.

As the image accompanying this article (PDF here) demonstrates, however, transit planners in the cities mentioned above need to ensure that they’re thinking before they spend billions of dollars plotting to ease the commute between center cities and airports. In case after case, huge amounts of money have been spent, only to provide riders with inconvienient access between transit and terminals. This results too many times in walk times that are simply too long and confusing paths between transit stations and terminals. This limits the attractiveness of the service and increases the number of people who choose to drive to the airport, exactly what airport transit connections are meant to limit.

So what should system designers focus on?

  • One-seat service from several parts of the city, preferably on well-marked trains.
  • Limited walking distance between airport stations and check-in counters.
  • In the future, downtown check-in.

In several existing U.S. services, high-quality one-seat service is provided to airports. Both Washington, D.C. and Atlanta, which began building their metro systems after the airplane age, incorporated airport access in the first phases of their construction programs. In the case of Washington, a connection to National Airport (renamed in 1998 to something grotesque) was relatively simple to envision because the airport lies directly between two must-serve areas of the region – the Pentagon and Alexandria, Virginia – and is just across the Potomac River from the Mall. This is not true for either Dulles Airport in Northern Virginia or Thurgood Marshall Baltimore-Washington Airport in Maryland because they’re both far from the center city and when the system was first conceived, few commuters lived in the areas nearby. Today, Blue and Yellow trains provide all-day and frequent service to the airport from downtown, Rosslyn, Alexandria, the Pentagon, and other sections of the city.

In Atlanta, the Marta station at the airport is at the end of the city’s main North-South Line, which has stations in the city’s burgeoning downtown and midtown areas, as well as in Buckhead. In both cities, the fact that airport service is provided by typical metro lines means two advantages: very frequent service at all times of the day and the potential for boarding towards the airport at many stations throughout the city.

This is not true, for instance, at Newark, New Jersey’s International Airport, which is served by an infrequent commuter rail system. People wanting to take the train to the airport often must wait 30 minutes or one hour for the next train to the airport.

The systems in Atlanta and Washington have another advantage: because metro trains arrive directly at the airport, just in front of the terminals, there is no need for a people-mover system between the metro station and the check-in areas. This means that riders getting off the metro do not need to get onto another train with their bags to check-in – they can simply walk a few hundred feet there.

This is not true, for example, at Chicago’s Midway airport, where the Orange Line El terminates far from the terminal. One questions how this happened – after all, this line extension was finished in 1993 and could have been designed to drop passengers directly in front of check-in counters. Instead, riders must walk through a large parking garage and go up and down several levels to get been the rapid transit station and the airport. Because the parking deck is actually closer to the terminal than the transit station, passengers have a strong incentive to drive to the airport; in both Atlanta and Washington, the station is closer to the terminals than parking decks. Chicago’s was a very poorly conceived design and a huge missed opportunity.

In many airports, people-movers are used to connect rapid transit stations to the terminals and check-in areas. This is true at New York City’s JFK Airport and at San Francisco’s Airport. Though in the case of the latter, BART metro service does go directly to the airport, the station is too far from many of the terminals to allow an easy walk – so commuters must get off one train and on to another, with bags. This situation is even worse in New York, where mass transit stops very far from the airport, and the people-mover rider between stations and the terminals is more than 15 minutes long. Even worse, though the people mover was built specifically to ease commutes, people at some of JFK’s terminals have very long walks between the people mover and check-in counters.

Atlanta and Washington provide good examples for how the interface between transit and airports can be well managed. In the case of Washington, the airport is small enough that one mass transit station close to the terminal is good enough for the vast majority of users. Atlanta’s airport is much bigger, but because it only has one large main check-in area, transit riders arrive very close to the baggage counters and then, after passing through security, take a people-mover to the appropriate terminal. This dramatically improves the experience for users with large bags.

In some cities, a solution to this distance problem is being formulated. In Chicago, for instance, there are plans for a downtown check-in center that would provide direct rides to both of the city’s airports, after people have gotten rid of their bags. This would mean a long walk at the airport itself isn’t nearly as frustrating. But the problem with downtown check-in centers is that they require secure, dedicated trains carrying checked baggage and mini-airports in the city-center. This is an expensive proposition.

We should hope, then, that future transit plans for airport connections consider the positive and convenient cases of Atlanta and Washington and attempt to implement similar ease of use in their systems. To do so would mean that all the money spent on these extension projects would be slightly more worthwhile.