National Airport: A New Terminal Takes Flight

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The Metro on the above ground line.
A Metro train leaves the new terminal on the above-ground line.
Photo by Robert Reeder/TWP
Metro-Terminal Link To Reduce Some Preflight Turbulence

By Stephen C. Fehr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 16, 1997

The seven-minute walk between the Metro platform and the jet gates at the new National Airport terminal is the fastest, most direct route from commuter train to jet at any airport in the United States, transportation officials say.

For 20 years, the opposite was true at National. The out-of-the-way Metro station was a 15-minute walk or shuttle bus ride from the terminal, often in harsh weather. Tens of thousands of passengers endured the hassle, or gave up and drove, adding to traffic congestion at the airport. "I just spent 20 minutes on that [darn] shuttle bus," Don Smith, 54, of Wheaton, said one recent, hot Friday afternoon as the crush of weekend travelers brought airport traffic to a crawl. "It's going to be a lot more efficient" when the new terminal opens.

And indoors. From the time passengers step off a Blue or Yellow Line train to when they are at their gate, they'll be protected from the elements. The walk will be accelerated by a series of moving sidewalks and a pedestrian bridge that will link the Metro station with the terminal.

"This really means they never have to go outdoors," said James A. Wilding, who heads the authority that runs National and Dulles International airports. "Not only is the terminal physically close to the Metro station but it creates a sense that when you get off the rail car and go down to the Farecard plaza, you are in effect inside the terminal building."

Metro General Manager Richard A. White said linking the subway station to the terminal through a covered walkway "takes a situation that was less than perfect and makes it just about as perfect as it can be."

The Metro on the above ground line leaving the new terminal.
On the platform with the new control tower in the background.
Photo by Robert Reeder/TWP

The airports in Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland and St. Louis have rail links, but none is as close to airline gates as the one at National. Several other U.S. airports, including those in New York and San Francisco, are planning mass transit stops.

"All the great cities are trying to get rail access to their airports," said White, who came to Washington from the San Francisco Bay area last year. "Here, they're bringing the airport to Metro. It will be the best airport access in the United States. In San Francisco, we believed what we were planning would be the best, but now I've seen this and it's even better."

Dick Felner, 55, of Gaithersburg, a frequent business traveler to Europe, said: "They're just reinventing Europe, where there's no break between transportation. You go from one place to another without delay."

Despite the improved connection, airport and subway officials aren't predicting a surge of additional Metro riders-at least initially. Part of the reason is the presence of additional parking-5,300 spaces-and a 13-lane roadway that will make it easier to drive in and out of National.

About 15 percent of National's 45,000 daily passengers currently ride Metro, but the figure dropped to less than 10 percent during construction, transit officials said. With the terminal closer to the station, airport officials say a conservative prediction is that about 20 percent will use Metro initially, based on their rider surveys. That means about 9,000 airport passengers would take Metro, up from the current 6,700, according to transit officials.

Whether the slight increase in transit riders will reduce traffic congestion isn't clear. The terminal's new roadway system-five lanes for departing passengers and eight lanes for those arriving-should help smooth the flow of traffic. And a lack of parking, a frequent complaint over the years at National, has been addressed, which should help prevent gridlock.

"A lot of the cars you see in the lines are going around and around because there's no place to park," Wilding said.

National's terminal, Wilding said, is one of the first designed around a subway station, which allowed planners to keep walking times short. They accomplished this in part by adding a Farecard plaza at the north end of the Metro platform, giving riders a choice of entrances/exits depending on their airline.

US Airways passengers, for instance, should use the north mezzanine because it is closer to the airline's C gates in the terminal. Delta Air Lines passengers will be directed to use the existing, south mezzanine for the B gates. Once passengers exit the faregate, they will see the pedestrian walkway that takes them into the terminal's concourse, or middle level, where the gates are.

A third Farecard plaza, for disabled and other passengers using elevators, was installed under the Metro platform, midway between the north and south mezzanines.

Shuttle buses will continue to run between the Metro station and the old terminal, where Continental Airlines, Trans World Airlines, Midway Air Lines and Northwest Airlines will continue operating. The Delta and US Airways shuttles will be in their existing locations until the end of the year. The continued need for shuttle buses will be a reminder of a system that no one has liked.

Former FAA and Metro officials who worked on building the station still disagree on who wanted to build the Metro stop so far away from the old airline terminal.

Former Metro officials say the FAA made the decision because it wanted the station to be close to where the new terminal eventually would be built.

"For years and years, people wondered why did we put it there," said Roy Dodge, Metro's former design and engineering chief. "We were told [by the FAA] to put it there because that's where the new terminal eventually would be."

As construction was underway for the 1977 opening, Metro officials said they were planning a moving sidewalk between the Metro stop and the terminal. But that plan was killed because it was too expensive and would have gone into United Airlines' ticketing area, giving United an unfair advantage over other carriers.

"I had thought the moving sidewalk was going to be built and we'd be able to better accommodate the traveling public," said former Metro general manager Theodore C. Lutz, now business manager of The Washington Post.

Wilding, then an FAA official, has a different recollection. He said that some of Metro's initial route maps did not even include an airport stop and that the FAA persuaded transit officials to include one.

Top FAA officials, Wilding said, preferred an underground station, which would have directly served the existing terminal, as well as the future new terminal.

"We felt it would have been a turnoff to have to put people on a bus to ride them to the terminal," Wilding said. FAA officials even pledged to get the additional $10 million they estimated would be needed to go underground, he said.

Metro officials, who thought an underground station would be too expensive, prevailed on lawmakers and the White House to approve an elevated station after agreeing to complete it in time for the 1976 Bicentennial celebration. The station opened a year later.

"It was a major dust-up, and we came out on the short end of it," Wilding said.

So did airport users, such as Ralph DeBar, 49, of Dale City. Waiting for a Metro train at National, DeBar summed up how many riders will feel after the new terminal opens July 27. "This is going to be a great improvement over the old system."

Staff writer Alice Reid contributed to this report.

Read what riders think of the new Metro connection.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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