This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

I was having a drink with a friend and co-worker who’s a heavy business traveller, and I mentioned that I often take Link when I’m going to SeaTac.  He expressed disbelief, and then asked me, “where is the airport station? It’s a ridiculous distance from the terminal, isn’t it?”

I told him no, it’s on the other side of the parking garage, and not too much further of a walk than if you park your car at the airport.  He wasn’t buying it.  To him, the distance between the airport link station and the terminal made it a non-starter (for the record, it’s about 1,000 feet).  I was quite surprised.

This conversation came back to me yesterday as I read Yonah Freemark discussing a potential new route for the train connecting Dulles airport to the DC Metro.  Instead of having the Metro take a detour to Dulles, the plan would have a people mover connect airport passengers, getting them closer to the airport, but requiring a transfer:

What would Tukwila have looked like if Sound Transit had decided to route Link to Southcenter, and provide (or get the Port of Seattle to provide) a connecting tram directly to the SeaTac terminal, let’s say via an above-ground AirTrain-like station that would have dropped you off directly on top of the check-in desks.  The overall ride would surely have been longer.  But the perception might have been very different.

As a bonus, you’d have light rail service directly to Southcenter, which, as Sherwin Lee at STB noted recently, is where Tukwila wants to concentrate urban development.

Clearly it’s too late to re-litigate all of this, and I know the pros and cons were hashed out back in the 90s when the alignment was being decided upon. I bring it up both as a thought experiment and to echo Yonah’s general statement: sometimes it’s better for an Airport line to not go directly to the airport.

4 Replies to “Revisiting Airport Link”

  1. Ooorr… we could treat transit preferentially vs. cars, and have light-rail directly to the terminal, even if it means shunting the cars further out of the way, or making people take the skybridge to the giant parking lot.

    “Rail link, directly to an existing terminal? It can’t be done!”, you say… SeaTac didn’t always have a shuttle-train system, it was added in 1973, 24 years after the airport terminal was first opened.

    Another question… Why are we told that it’s good that we’re 1000ft from the terminal? Well, so it can serve Int’l Blvd, and the businesses/residents there. Why aren’t those businesses closer to the airport? Oh, because we have an enormous parking lot in between them & the terminal, of course.

    While we’re on the subject, why do we need a giant parking lot, there, anyhow? Let people who drive to the airport park offsite, and split that between taxis, pick-ups, and rental cars, and turn the current taxi/pickup/drop-off lane into the light-rail station. DONE.

    We just don’t have the stones to tell people they shouldn’t drive to the airport if they can avoid it. We’d much rather make it really inconvenient to use the state-of-the-art transit connector, just in case nobody uses it.

    As a great example of how this can be done properly, Washington’s Reagan Airport had me going from the baggage claim to on a train in ~ 5 minutes, including figuring out the crazy ticket machine they have there.

  2. Sounds to me like a problem with assumptions, since he almost definitely walks a lot more than 1,000 feet once inside the terminal to get through security and to the gate.

  3. A few comments:

    1. One of the airport shuttle trains was built recently, with the airport expansion. I worked on relocating some air conditioning components at the time. Plus, building transit right into airports is nothing new.

    2. For reference, SeaTac’s parking lot is the largest parking structure under one roof in the entire world. I’m not sure that’s the world record I want us to hold.

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