Oakland Airport Connector trains pass near the airport. Photo by the author.

San Francisco’s BART opened the new 3.2-mile Oakland Airport Connector shortly before Thanksgiving, tying a second Bay Area airport into the region’s rail system. A similar project could give BWI a boost.

Oakland International and BWI airports share the same problem of being a couple of miles away from important transit lines, BART and the MARC train, respectively. Oakland solved the problem with a special “people mover” automated train that simply goes back and forth between the airport and the nearest BART station.

In the Washington region, a similar connector could be used to bridge the roughly two-mile gap between the BWI Marshall Airport rail station on the Amtrak and MARC line and the airport terminal. This would create a direct airport-rail connection similar to the one at Ronald Reagan Washington National airport and the Silver Line station under construction at Washington Dulles International airport, while at the same time reducing congestion on airport roads and emissions from the fleet of shuttle buses.

"A people mover is included in long-term planning efforts,” says airport spokesman Jonathan Dean. “BWI Marshall airport has examined different people-mover concepts that would connect the airport terminal with our parking facilities, the BWI Rail Station, and the rental car facility.”

Transfer between the BART Coliseum platform and the Oakland Airport Connector. Photo by the author.

Oakland’s automated line operates every five minutes during the day with the trip to the terminal buildings at Oakland International airport from BART’s Coliseum station taking nine minutes. The train trip onwards to downtown San Francisco takes about 20 minutes and to downtown Oakland about 10 minutes.

The connector replaces AirBART shuttle busses with a more frequent and faster ride, albeit also at double the cost with one-way fares increasing to $6 from $3.

As a frequent traveller to the Bay Area, the ride on the connector is much more pleasant than the shuttle bus. The airport station is a short walk from the terminal with the connection at the Coliseum station short and taking travelers directly to the BART platform.

People movers that connect airport terminals with parking lots, a transit station and rental car facilities are common at major US airports. Newark Liberty International airport and Chicago O’Hare International airport are two airports with such systems.

The question is whether the project would be cost effective for BWI. The Oakland Airport Connector cost BART and its partners $484 million after more than 30 years of studies. About 3,000 to 3,500 riders are expected to use it daily, compared to the about 2,500 to 3,000 daily riders that used the AirBART buses previously.

The free shuttle buses between the terminal and the rail station at BWI carried about 1,775 riders daily in 2013, says Dean.

Amtrak/MARC shuttle bus at BWI. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

An automated connector partially funded by the airport would be an attractive and passenger friendly addition to BWI. However, BWI has no plans to build a people mover in the near term, says Dean. With numerous bus lines and the Baltimore light rail already serving the terminal at BWI in addition to the the rail station shuttle buses, a people mover is likely a project that the region can wait on.

Edward Russell is an air transport reporter by day with a passion for all things transportation. He is a resident of Eckington and tweets frequently about planes, trains and bikes.