Why Austin Shouldn’t Build Rail to the Airport

Last Friday Project Connect presented the final “Locally Preferred Alternative” to the mayor’s Central Corridor Advisory Group. As expected for months, it connects East Riverside to Highland Mall along the east side of downtown.

Project Connect Urban Rail Locally Preferred Alternative
Project Connect Urban Rail Locally Preferred Alternative

While I believe this is a bad plan, and have been heartened to hear new voices espouse similar sentiments, I have been somewhat perplexed by the calls for rail to connect to the airport by both pundits and apparently the general public as well.

Although the entire Project Connect urban rail process has generally been a train wreck, one thing they’ve gotten right is not connecting to the airport. Airport rail connections are a bad investment generally, and would be a terrible use of funds here in Austin. Let me take a moment to explain.

First, let’s start with the alignment. The final stop that Project Connect is proposing would be on East Riverside at Grove. To get from there to the airport terminal would require approximately 4 miles of additional rail. It might look something like this:

ABIA connector alignment
Hypothetical ABIA Rail Alignment

Four miles of additional rail at a projected cost of $145M per mile adds up to $580M. That’s 42% of the current projected cost for the entire system! And for that massive cost we’d get ONE additional station, the terminus at the airport. Given the land use of the surrounding area, there aren’t really any options for additional stations between Grove and the airport.

Now the cost per mile would almost certainly drop with no additional stations, and we might be able to find a shorter alignment, but since that’d require tunneling under the runways, there probably wouldn’t be any savings to be found. Let’s be extremely generous any say the airport extension could be done for $100M per mile, or $400M total. We’re now down to 29% of the total project cost, but that’s still a HUGE capital expenditure. Ah, but maybe the airport boosters think we’d make up for it with extremely high ridership? Unfortunately, empirical evidence at other facilities indicates otherwise. Let’s look at a few:

Portland International Airport

  • Light rail connection (MAX)
  • Total Airport Passengers Served (2013): 15,029,196
  • Airport Rail Station Average Daily Riders: 3,200
  • Rail Share: 7.77%

San Francisco International Airport

  • Heavy rail connection (BART)
  • Total Airport Passengers Served (2013): 44,944,201
  • Airport Rail Station Weekday Riders (April 2014): 13,044
  • Rail Share: 10.59%

Newark Liberty International Airport

  • People-mover to heavy rail connection (AirTrain Newark)
  • Total Airport Passengers Served (2013): 35,016,236
  • Airport Rail Station Annual Riders: 2,386,467
  • Rail share: 6.82%

John F. Kennedy International Airport

  • People-mover to heavy rail connection (AirTrain JFK)
  • Total Airport Passengers Served (2013): 50,423,765
  • Airport Rail Station Annual Riders: 6,002,835
  • Rail share: 11.90%

It’s important to note that all these facilities connect to something larger than a single-line rail system. At the higher end they’re connecting to heavy rail systems that serve huge populations, and even then the rail ridership ceiling is still fairly low at 10-12% of the total airport passengers.

What would the hypothetical look like for Austin? In 2013 Austin-Bergstrom International Airport was the 33rd busiest airport in the country serving 10,017,958 passengers. Let’s be extremely generous and take the 11.9% rail share the AirTrain JFK gets. That’d give just over 3,200 average daily riders. That’s basically the same as the Portland MAX connection, but almost certainly unrealistic since PDX serves almost 50% more passengers than ABIA and the MAX is a multi-line system with dozens of destinations. Still, even if we assume ridership of at least 3,200 daily, remember we’re talking about a capital cost of at least $400M. That’s a capital investment of $125,000 PER RIDER!

And it doesn’t get any better when you considering the operating costs. While Project Connect hasn’t released any estimates for operations & maintenance yet, we can use the projections from the 2012 plan as a very rough estimation. That plan was for 4.6 miles of “urban rail” running from downtown to Mueller, and the O&M projection was $16M per year. That’s $3.5M/mi/yr. Again, let’s be generous and cut that in half. $1.75M per mile per year over a four mile connection is $7M/yr for AT MOST 1.1M annual riders. Again, these are VERY rough estimates, but I’d expect the required operating subsidy to come in near RedLine levels, and that’d mean cutting a LOT of essential bus service elsewhere in the city.

Airport rail may sound like a flashy idea, but it’s rarely a good investment. And in Austin it would be a terrible initial investment in rail transit.