San Diego’s airport needs more public transit, officials say. An aerial train might be the multibillion-dollar answer.
The San Diego Association of Governments is one step closer on deciding how to best spend billions of dollars to connect a public transit system to the airport.
A 92-page study released by the regional planning agency found that one option so far appears to be the most “realistic” and “financially feasible,” according to a staff presentation last week: an automated people mover along a route south of the airport.
The driverless, train-like shuttle could cost between $2.4 billion to $6.3 billion depending on whether it would be built overhead or underground — and if additional stops were added to the route.
“We have a prime opportunity to move this critical project forward to address a growing problem before it gets worse,” said Ryan Kohut, the agency’s director of strategic projects.
For years, planning officials have discussed improving public transit connections to the San Diego International Airport. That call has persisted as the airport, the busiest single-runway facility in the U.S., projects to serve 40 million annual passengers by 2050 — and as SANDAG leadership has tried for sometimes controversial public transit expansions in recent years under the leadership of CEO Hasan Ikhrata.
Ikhrata, who has led the agency since 2018, also informed board leaders last week that he will resign at the end of this year. In addition to the pushback he received for advocating for a per-mile fee for drivers, the CEO also came under fire for a series of internal audits that flagged improper severance payments, credit card misuse and poor contract processes.
While the study also considered extending the existing trolley system and an enhanced bus service, it found an aerial people mover may bring the most benefit. The nearly 2-mile shuttle would be accessible to riders from stations on Broadway west of Third Avenue; near the Santa Fe Depot; at the Port of San Diego Headquarters on Pacific Highway; and at the airport’s Rental Car Center.
Officials have also discussed optional stops at the County Administration Center and Harbor Island on the aerial mover route.
SANDAG staff say roads surrounding the airport are already congested, and that upgrades are necessary to keep up with the needs of local residents and tourists traveling to and from the airport.
A people mover would come every 2-4 minutes and could yield the highest estimate of transit riders — potentially serving 29,000 people within a 0.5-mile buffer of the stationsand reducing traffic near the airport by more than 20%.
How the project would be funded has not been finalized, and SANDAG officials did not discuss a timeline on when construction of the people mover would be completed.
But Kohut said the projected increase in transit riders that would come with the people mover could help with funding for the project, as the metric is considered by state and federal officials for grant decisions. Labor and environmental groups are also again attempting to place a half-cent sales tax increase on the November 2024 ballot in hopes of garnering billions of dollars for SANDAG projects.
But some have already raised concerns.
Terry Gaasterland, a councilmember representing Del Mar on the SANDAG board, questioned if residents north of the airport would equally benefit from the people mover option. While the mover would stop at the Santa Fe Depot — which also services North County’s COASTER commuter train — Gaasterland said any plan should include a stop at the Old Town Transit Center to better connect to northern cities.
“I love the South County solution. It looks great,” Gaasterland said. “It's really gonna help people in National City and Chula Vista a lot, but we can't leave out all of the northern part of our county.”
La Mesa Councilmember Jack Shu, who also serves on the SANDAG board, said during the meeting that while he supports airport jobs, he suggested the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority and airport users foot at least half of the cost.
The airport has already committed $350 million for transit projects, including a possible people mover.
“I'm for letting the people who actually fly — maybe the employers — pay for the system, not overburden the rest of us in the region,” Shu said.
More discussion on the study’s findings will continue before an environmental review of the project would begin.