Courtesy of Miami Intermodal Center

A new federal report says the costs of intermodal air-and-rail hubs outweigh the benefits in all but a "limited number of places."

The Miami Intermodal Center — a $2 billion hub for air, rail, transit, and car travel — will be completed sometime late this year or early next. When that time comes, people traveling through Miami International Airport will be able to do something very rare in American transportation. They'll be able to arrive at or leave the airport on Amtrak. 

That's only true at two other major airports across the country: Newark International in New Jersey, and Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, California.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office doesn't expect that list to become longer anytime soon. In a report released earlier this week, the agency cites a number of barriers to the integration of air and intercity rail service in the United States — cost, density, and car dependency among them. The GAO concludes that very few corridors outside the Northeast could improve this intermodal access enough to make the effort worth everyone's while:

Given the high potential costs of air-rail connections, it is likely that only a limited number of places could demonstrate potential benefits high enough to justify improved air-rail connectivity investments.

Of the 60 large or medium hub airports in the United States, about 21 are located within 5 miles of Amtrak, with another 21 within 10 miles. A few of these airports (like those in Baltimore and San Jose) can bring travelers to and from the train station by shuttle or public transit. But only airports in Newark, Burbank, and (soon enough) Miami have access to Amtrak right on campus, either by a quick walk or an automated tram:

Very few U.S. travelers go through an airport by intercity train as a result. One recent study found that Amtrak accounted for just 3 percent of all airport access at Newark, 2 percent at Baltimore, and less than 1 percent at Burbank. Newark is the only airport with an agreement between Amtrak and an air carrier (United) to let passengers reserve seats on both modes at the same time.

Contrast those figures with rail-air connectivity measures in Europe. There, intercity rail accounts for 20 to 25 percent of travel access at some airports. The European Commission has made air-rail integration — or air-high-speed rail integration, to be more precise — a major priority, adopting a resolution to connect all 37 core airports to intercity rail by 2050.

To most transport experts, the benefits of tighter air-rail connections are clear. Intercity rail can act as a complement to air travel (especially for medium-distance trips of roughly 200 miles), improving a corridor's travel options and general mobility. Shifting travel from cars and short flights to intercity trains may also reduce congestion — both on clogged metro area highways and in crowded airspace. There are potential environmental and economic benefits, too.

But the barriers outlined by GAO are significant. Generally speaking, U.S. metro areas are less dense and farther apart than those in Europe, making intercity rail service more difficult to manage. The combination of relatively cheap gas and a long history of highway building makes travel to and from an airport by car a very viable option. Limited federal funding — with no single source dedicated exclusively to air-rail projects — is also a significant obstacle.

In other words, the problems facing air-rail connectivity are the same ones preventing the expansion of America's passenger train network at large.

Hence GAO's rather dim view of achieving more integration between Amtrak and airports. Certainly the Northeast Corridor could do a better job — Amtrak has a goal of five air-rail connections in the region by 2015 — and the emergence of California's high-speed line should boost intermodal prospects there, too. As for Miami, construction of the intermodal center is on schedule even after a slight hitch late last year, when officials realized they'd left too little platform space for Amtrak's trains. See a metaphor in that mistake if you will. 

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