$4.7B: The price tag for a ‘Grand Central Station’ and underground people mover to San Diego airport

People mover system is favored over trolley extension because it would be faster and is expected to have much higher ridership


At a cost of $4 billion or more, San Diego County could have a multi-level Grand Central Station and underground people mover that would whisk passengers to the airport within just two to three minutes, offering a transit solution that has eluded the region for decades.

That’s the conclusion of a more than 60-page report released late Thursday by the San Diego Association of Governments as part of a nine-month effort by the region’s elected leaders and transportation officials to devise a way to transport people to and from the airport in a quick and efficient manner while ensuring high ridership.

While the report — prepared at a cost of $1 million — looks at four transit options, only one is focused exclusively on expanding the existing San Diego trolley to the airport. Taking a page from some 46 other airports around the world, the other three concepts contemplate an automated people mover system, which typically operates without drivers and uses smaller vehicles that can carry standing passengers. One advantage of such a system is that it provides level boarding and can operate at high frequencies, which allows people to “arrive at their aircraft gates faster and with less stress,” the SANDAG report states.

Reporters Lori Weisberg, Jenn Van Grove discuss what needs to happen for San Diego’s “Grand Central Station” to happen

The transit option that appears to be favored most by local planners and engineering consultants who worked on the latest analysis is a new transit center that would be developed on Navy property north of the airport, in concert with a nonstop, underground people mover that would be free to ride. It offers the promise of reduced airport traffic — by as much as 30 percent — and high ridership that could approach 40,000 passengers a day. Coming in a close second is a proposal that calls for a 3.6-mile-long ground-level and elevated route to the airport along Pacific Highway, Laurel Street, and Harbor Drive.

Where today, the majority of trips to the San Diego International Airport — 99 percent — are via private vehicles, the proportion of trips to the airport via transit could rise to 15 to 34 percent on a people mover system, the SANDAG report predicts.

The analysis of the transit options took into consideration such factors as expected ridership, the potential for reduced traffic congestion, feasibility and cost.

The new report arrives just as Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata signed this week an agreement that is seen as the first crucial step toward redeveloping the 70-acre Naval Base Point Loma, Old Town Complex, a project that would include a 25- to 30-acre transit hub. But there remain a number of unknowns like securing permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to tunnel under the airport’s single runway.

The effort to bring transit to the airport has intensified in recent months as the San Diego Regional Airport Authority prepares to move forward on a $3 billion plan to redevelop the airport focusing largely on an overhaul and expansion of the aging Terminal 1. Meanwhile passenger growth at the airport continues to hit record levels. Maximum passenger capacity for Lindbergh Field — about 40 million — is expected to occur around 2043, the Airport Authority estimates.

“This is a high-level analysis we’ve done, which concludes that a central mobility hub with a tunnel to the airport is the quickest transit ride, the most efficient, gets the most ridership, and you have to take the least amount of above-ground right-of-way to make it happen,” explained Coleen Clementson, acting planning director for SANDAG. “But that also relies on the Navy agreeing to this, the FAA agreeing that a tunnel under the runway is acceptable. Those are things still in question. Anything can happen there, and that’s the reason for not saying yet that this is the one.”

An airport subcommittee that includes a number of elected leaders from around the region, as well as board members from a number of public agencies, will weigh the various transit proposals at a meeting Wednesday and make a recommendation to the SANDAG board of directors, which will meet Sept. 27.

Specifically, the four options under consideration call for:

  • A grand central station on the Navy’s property (often referred to as the NAVWAR site), located in the Midway District just south of the Old Town Transit Center. Roughly 80 feet below ground level would be a people mover station from which riders could travel nonstop to the airport via a one-mile tunnel route to a transit station located between Terminals 1 and 2 at the airport. Total cost: $3.9 billion to $4.7 billion, including the expense of building the new transit hub,
  • A transit center on the NAVWAR site, but instead of a tunneled route, passengers would travel via a 3.6-mile surface/elevated route, with intermediate stops at the Rental Car Center and planned development at Harbor Island East Basin. Total cost: $3.8 billion to $4.6 billion, including grand central station.
  • A new transit hub, known as the “Intermodal Transit Center, a long-planned transit hub that would be located slightly closer to the airport, across Pacific Highway from the Rental Car Center. A people mover station would provide service to the airport via a 2.6-mile surface-level and elevated route, which would include stops at the rental center and Harbor Island. Total cost: $3 billion to $3.6 billion, including the cost to build the new transit center.
  • An extension of the existing trolley system, but no new central transit hub. The new alignment would branch from the existing trolley corridor, either via an aerial structure near Laurel Street or a tunnel below Grape and Hawthorn streets. The new trolley line would extend north to the Old Town Transit Center and south to Santa Fe Depot and the 12th & Imperial Transit Center, including all existing intermediate stops. Despite the public’s familiarity with the trolley system, this option is described as having the lowest potential ridership and longest travel time to the airport. Total cost: $1.8 billion to $2.5 billion.

Each of the studied options contemplates major roadway and freeway improvements, including widening Laurel Street between Pacific Highway and Interstate 5, constructing new I-5 freeway ramp connections to Laurel, and removing I-5 ramp connections to Grape and Hawthorn streets to reduce traffic in Little Italy. The cost of those improvements is included in the overall cost estimates for each of the transit proposals.

As costly as the favored transit options are, the expense could soar even higher because not included in the estimates is the cost of eventually relocating various high-speed lines, such as the Coaster, Amtrak and the trolley, from the Old Town Transit Center to the new central transit hub being proposed.

SANDAG officials say realization of a direct transit connection to the airport is still years off.

Should the SANDAG board approve this month a request by Ikhrata to spend $50 million on further planning work, a two-year study will ensue, covering environmental work and a more detailed look at the various transit alternatives leading up to the selection of a preferred option. During that time, local agencies would also explore potential funding sources, including federal grants.

Travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt lauded San Diego for pursuing a grand transit scheme but acknowledges that the effort will consume several years of work.

“I don’t think they’re tilting at windmills. This is a starting point,” Harteveldt said. “So many airports, like Cleveland, Paris, JFK, Dallas, have something like this so there’s no reason why San Diego shouldn’t have this too. “The question is what will be the right approach for San Diego, which includes practical matters like cost and location and how to maximize the appeal of this. But if the airport is to grow to 40 million by 2050, the airport has to do something.”