Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correct the cost figures for the SANDAG projects mentioned.
SAN DIEGO — As work to the new Terminal 1 continues, the long-talked about direct transit connection to the San Diego International Airport is inching closer to becoming a reality.
On Friday, the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) Board of Directors voted to approve an amendment to its $1.2 billion budget for the 2024 fiscal year to add $643 million in federal, state and local revenue to advance more than 30 projects over the next five years.
This includes projects like the proposed airport transit connection discussed by local officials for nearly four decades as a possible solution to longstanding complaints of traffic congestion and an overall lack of public transportation options to the air travel center.
“These investments will improve the lives of everyone across our County, by increasing accessibility and enhancing all our region has to offer,” SANDAG and San Diego County Board of Supervisor Chairwoman Nora Vargas said in a release on Friday. “Today’s action is proof that we are getting things done. Whether you drive, ride, walk, or roll – there is something for you in this budget amendment.”
A spokesperson for SANDAG says the approval of the funds will allow the regional planning agency to initiate state environmental review on the transit connection project — a step that will bring it closer towards the completion of the planning phase.
The project is one of several in the $30.5 billion “Central Mobility Hub Connections Comprehensive Multimodal Corridor” plan, a sweeping blueprint aimed at building out San Diego’s public transit in heavily-trafficked corridors throughout its urban core.
The project’s focus area includes proposed improvements throughout downtown, Old Town, the Midway District, Liberty Station and Loma Portal. The San Diego International Airport falls right in the middle of the boundary.
Already considered the busiest single-runway airport in the U.S., the new Terminal 1 is projected to increase the number of passengers traveling through the airport from roughly 25 million per year to as many 40 million by 2050, according to San Diego Airport Authority.
“There is definitely urgency,” San Diego City Council President and SANDAG Board Vice Chair Sean Elo Rivera said during a meeting in late July. “Without a viable transit option, more travelers means more traffic and that traffic is traffic that impacts those of us that live here.”
For the airport connection project, SANDAG is exploring three direct transit options — an automated people mover system, a Trolley extension or bus service enhancements — that have multiple potential routes, according to a 92-page study released by the agency in July.
However, one of the options seemed to be the leading possibility, with staff calling it the most “realistic” and “financially feasible” of the proposed links in a presentation to the Board of Directors on July 28.
That concept is an aerial automated people mover system — similar to those in airports like Newark and San Francisco — that runs nearly two-miles to the south of the airport, connecting with Santa Fe Depot to allow passengers the ability to transfer to MTS Trolley lines and the LOSSAN corridor passenger trains.
It would run every two to six minutes and could have the highest number of transit riders among the three concepts for the airport link.
Optional stops may be added at the County Administration Building on the way to the central transit station, as well as the Civic/Core Station to the east and the Convention Center Station to the west.
A map of the proposed automated people mover from the study, as well as different route options can be found below.
According to SANDAG, the shuttle would be more “nimble” than the other options and can be better integrated into communities while connecting passengers to existing transit options.
“(The people mover would) provide fast and frequent service and it’s more straightforward to build,” Ryan Kohut, the agency’s director of strategic projects, said during the Board meeting on July 28.
It would also have the largest impact on traffic congestion compared to the additional MTS Trolley stop or expanded bus service options for the airport link.
According to the SANDAG study, drivers could see cuts to their commute time to the airport from anywhere between 10 to 24 minutes, depending on where in the county they are coming from.
The people mover could also reduce daily traffic congestion around San Diego International by upwards of 26% along Laurel Street and North Harbor Drive by 2050, when the number of motorists coming through the airport will be more than double current levels.
“We have a prime opportunity to move this critical project forward to address a growing problem before it gets worse,” Kohut continued. “This project will have a real and meaningful impact on the region, which will only grow as our transportation network continues to expand.”
While no plans have been solidified, the automated people mover could cost anywhere from $1.3 billion to $6.7 billion depending on what route is selected, how many stops, and whether it will be built overhead or underground.
According to the SANDAG study, the high end of the range represents the cost of a fully underground automated people mover that includes the additional southbound routes and a northbound one to Old Town. The aerial configuration would cost up to about $4 billion.
The San Diego Airport Authority has already committed to put about $350 million towards the construction of the new airport transit link. Additional funds will primarily come from state and federal sources, the agency says.
Of the federal and state funds unlocked by Friday’s vote, about $32 million will be dedicated towards the planning and environmental analysis processes for the transit connection over the next five years. According to budget documents, this study will occur throughout the 2024 fiscal year, which runs from July 1, 2023 to June 30, 2024.
The SANDAG Board is expected to receive an update on the airport transit connection options sometime in the fall before environmental analysis officially begins. At this time, an exact timeline for getting the airport link up and running has not yet been determined.
Meanwhile, the first phase of the new Terminal 1 is scheduled to open in late summer 2025. Work to Terminal 1 is expected to be fully completed by 2028.