It's L.A.'s mysterious missing link.

Only slightly more than a mile in length, it may as well be 100.

It's that stretch separating the western terminus of the Metro Rail Green Line from what would seem to be its true, logical terminus, the Los Angeles International Airport.

The reasons behind the Green Line's shortcoming are rooted in politics and money, of course. But now, nearly six years after its completion, the Green Line is once again drawing the attention of regional transportation planners.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority included the missing rail link in its 25-year wish list of projects released last month. And Los Angeles World Airports, which runs LAX, is about to release details of the Green Line link in its environmental documents for its multibillion-dollar expansion project.

"It's such a short distance, it seems so logical and practical to connect the Green Line up with the airport," said Dana Gabbard, executive secretary with Southern California Transit Advocates. "It should have been done when the Green Line was built back in the early 1990s."

Instead, airport users must hop on a shuttle for the 1.25-mile ride to the Green Line station, then transfer to the rail line. Currently, some 3,000 people a day take the shuttle, many of them airport employees.

Building the missing link would likely increase Green Line passenger volume dramatically from its current average of about 30,000 riders a day, advocates say. But don't hold your breath: The cost of the project is so high and the built-in delay so long that it is quite possible it will never get built.

Airport officials envision a two-mile link from the Green Line station at Aviation Boulevard and Imperial Highway to the proposed new terminal on the western edge of LAX. Then a people-mover would take passengers from this new Green Line station to the various airport terminals.

The total cost estimate for the Green Line extension: $500 million, making it one of the most expensive light rail stretches in the region. Among the biggest cost-drivers, airport officials say, is $50 million for a tunnel to take the extension underneath the airfield and more than $100 million for the laying of track.

The people-mover system, which could be built with or without the Green Line connection, would cost at least $600 million more, according to airport officials.

And it's not just the cost. The Green Line extension is now caught up in the intense controversy surrounding the LAX expansion plan. As a result, airport officials say it will be at least five years and maybe as long as 10 years before the first track gets put down. And that's assuming the expansion plan ever gets off the ground; neighboring cities and other expansion opponents have pledged to fight the expansion for as long as it takes to stop it.

"It's really tied to the Master Plan if the Master Plan doesn't go through, then the funding just won't be there to build the (Green Line) extension," said Jim Ritchie, deputy executive director of long-range planning for Los Angeles World Airports.

History of complications

Of course this wouldn't be the first time that the Green Line extension got caught in the downdraft of larger controversies. Indeed the very existence of the Green Line is owed to another controversy: the decades-long court battle over the building of the Century Freeway.

"The Green Line was never designed as part of an overall transportation plan," said Karen Heit, director of local programming and policy for the MTA. "Rather, it was a mitigation measure that came out of the lawsuit settlement over the building of the Century Freeway."

(Back in the 1970s, residents and businesses whose homes were condemned to make way for the freeway filed a massive lawsuit against the California Department of Transportation that took more than 10 years to resolve.)

As a result, from the get-go, the Green Line was treated more like an orphan stepchild than as an integrated part of the MTA's rail network. It never had a clear destination point beyond the terminus of the freeway.

Back in the mid-1980s, when planning for the Green Line got under way in earnest, it was thought that most riders would use it to get to and from the booming aerospace industry in the South Bay, Heit said. That's why the plans took the rail line to the south. Continuing the Green Line on to LAX was regarded as being of secondary importance.

Of course, by the time the Century Freeway and Green Line were completed in the mid-1990s, the aerospace industry had largely disappeared and the southern Green Line spur was doomed to relatively low ridership.

Nonetheless, even as the aerospace jobs were disappearing, construction of the southern spur continued, while the LAX spur languished on the drawing board. The official explanation from the MTA is that there was opposition from the Federal Aviation Administration and the airlines. They were concerned that the electric current running through the light rail wires would interfere with the sensitive instrumentation aboard approaching aircraft. That meant any rail line would have to be at least partially buried in a trench, thus raising the cost exponentially.

Unofficially, other explanations have been put forward, including opposition from airport shuttle companies, taxicab operators and airport parking lot operators fearful of losing business.

"These folks really put the pressure on at City Hall," Gabbard said.

Plan emerges

Finally, in the early 1990s, a plan did surface to take the Green Line north two miles to Lot C, the long-term airport parking lot, and then connect it with a people-mover that was then on the LAX drawing board. That plan would have cost $243 million, Heit said.

But by that time, it was too late. The MTA was drowning in red ink and undertaking another quarter-billion-dollar rail project was simply out of the question. The Green Line extension remained on the MTA books, but with the designation "Project to be built by others."

That's the way it remains today, which is why the Green Line extension is so closely tied to the airport expansion effort.

However, even now there is no clear consensus on whether or not the extension should be built.

"Even if it is built, it may not be used quite as much as it seems like it would on paper," said Stephen Erie, director of urban studies and planning at UC San Diego, who has studied LAX extensively. "With L.A. being such a decentralized city, most people are still going to get off the plane and rent a car or take a shuttle or taxi to get them where they need to go."

The biggest users, besides airport employees, are likely to be day commuters on business trips or people going to conventions downtown, he said.

But L.A. World Airport's Ritchie disagreed.

Evidence of demand

"All you have to do is look at how wildly popular our flyaways are to see how much a direct Green Line link would be used," Ritchie said.

He said 750,000 people a year use the flyaway park-and-ride service at Van Nuys Airport. LAX passengers park at Van Nuys and hop aboard a shuttle to LAX, thus avoiding traffic on the 405 and the hassle of parking at the almost-always-jammed LAX lots.

The Van Nuys flyaway is so popular, he said, that another one is under consideration at Union Station.

Besides, Ritchie said, having the Green Line extension as an option for airport passengers would take more cars off the roads and freeways around LAX, easing what is quickly approaching gridlock-level congestion.

Niki Tennant, a spokeswoman for L.A. City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, an outspoken opponent of LAX expansion, agreed that a Green Line extension would relieve congestion.

But, Tennant said that's still not enough rationale to build it, let alone tie it to the airport expansion effort.

"We want to see studies done showing what ridership would actually be there," Tennant said. "Then we would want to see the extension separated out from the expansion plan and rerouted to the existing terminals."

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