New international terminal lacking direct MARTA access; future airport master plan should focus on transit, rail
By Maria Saporta
When the new Maynard H. Jackson International Terminal opens on May 16, arriving passengers will no longer have to recheck their bags before they are able to leave the airport.
But if the passengers decide they want to ride MARTA to get to Atlanta, they will have to board a shuttle that will take them along the Loop Road on a 12 to 14 minute ride from the Jackson International terminal to the domestic terminal where they can board MARTA.
One of Atlanta’s greatest conveniences has been that Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is one of the few cities in the nation that has its public transit system provide direct rail service to its airport.
Unfortunately that selling point will be diminished when trying to use MARTA to get to or from the international terminal.
So why was the MARTA rail line not extended to the international terminal?
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who in an ideal world would have loved to have MARTA serve the international terminal, said last week that it would have cost an estimated $300 million or more. There was great pressure to cut the projected costs of the new terminal, and the MARTA extension didn’t make economic sense. The new terminal is a $1.4 billion project.
“It would have been very, very expensive,” said Louis Miller, Hartsfield-Jackson’s general manager, who said that decision was made before he came to Atlanta. “They couldn’t afford to do it.”
Ben DeCosta, who had been the airport general manager for more than a decade, said the airport studied how many international passengers actually use MARTA to get to Atlanta.
“It was too expensive for the projected users,” said DeCosta, who then asked a rhetorical question. “Can you afford it? You can’t.”
That sentiment was a common refrain — among MARTA officials, airport planners and political leaders.
“If all things were perfect and we had the money, of course we would have wanted to have a connection into the international terminal,” Cheryl King, MARTA’s assistant general manager for planning. “But we
are an aging system. Would that be our priority? Personally, I would prefer to spend those dollars elsewhere.”
Long term, people interviewed agree that in the best of all worlds, extending MARTA to the international terminal would be an asset for Atlanta.
Take the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. It has direct rail service from central Paris to two stations at the airport serving both sides of the airport.
The convenience doesn’t stop there. At the Charles de Gaulle train station, one can catch high speed trains that can take you to numerous destinations throughout Europe.
In fact, when one buys an airline ticket from Atlanta to Lyon, France, chances are it will be a plane-train ticket. Europeans have figured out that it makes more sense for passengers to travel on high speed trains than to take an airplane between cities that are only a few hours apart.
So true multi-modalism exists at the Charles de Gaulle. People can easily segway from nearly any airport in the world to any major city in Europe without ever having to get into an automobile. http://www.raileurope.com/europe-travel-guide/france/paris/train-station/charles-de-gaulle-train-station.html
Not only does that kind of transportation flexibility serve the Europe of today, it positions the continent to be more globally competitive when the skies become overcrowded and when the cost of fuel becomes even more expensive.
And most importantly, it encourages the kind of sustainable urban development that make for livable, walkable cities.
Now back to Atlanta and our own reality.
For decades, there’s been talk of building a second airport to accommodate the anticipated growth in air traffic. Building a second airport would require billions upon billions of dollars of investment for a facility that no community wants.
Would the need for a second airport go away if a good portion of Atlanta’s connecting passengers were able to travel by rail? Common sense would say yes.
In planning for the new terminal, airport officials never gave a second thought to building two parking decks for 3,500 cars as well as a whole new road network to serve the new facility.
And that doesn’t take into account all the effort that’s being put into interstate signage to make sure drivers don’t go to the wrong terminal. Given the auto-dependent nature of our society, it’s a given that planners never even question their focus on roads and cars. Planning for transit, however, tends to be an afterthought.
Over the years, there was talk of creating a multimodal facility a bus ride away from the airport to serve trains from around the state.
But those plans have been just as stagnant as the state’s plans to invest in commuter rail, an intra-state passenger rail network (connecting major cities such as Macon, Savannah, Columbus, Augusta and Athens) and a high speed rail network that would connect Atlanta with Charlotte and Chattanooga.
Jim Drinkard, Hartsfield-Jackson’s assistant general manager, told the Urban Land Institute’s Atlanta chapter last week that the airport is working a new master plan for the airport. That master plan will look at what would be involved to build a sixth runway at the airport as well as other long-term issues.
Drinkard said it would make sense to incorporate the issues of MARTA and rail transit access to the Hartsfield-Jackson as part of that master plan.
In a brief interview last week, Mayor Reed said he would welcome any ideas to extend MARTA to the new terminal as well as enhancing rail and transit access to the airport.
Perhaps the airport could partner with Georgia Tech’s architecture and engineering students to have a design competition to come up with creative solutions on how best to incorporate rail and MARTA into the future development of Hartsfield-Jackson.
DeCosta said that in a “master planning effort, you always want to look at all the options.” Planning for rail would prepare Atlanta and Hartsfield-Jackson for the same kind of vision that our forefathers had when they decided to link MARTA with the airport decades ago.
“I think you will find a trend in the United States towards intermodalism at our airports in the next 25 years,” DeCosta said. “My intuition tells me that we should be looking across the nation to connect regions by trains. It would make the United States more competitive.”