Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport is planning for one of the nation’s most ambitious automated people-mover systems as it tries to cope with increasingly clogged streets and curbsides.
Airport officials want to build a rail-guided system that will cost perhaps $700 million and take nearly a decade to complete. But when it begins whisking passengers about the airport, it will connect all its terminals to distant parking lots, a new car rental facility and the planned light-rail line outside the airport.
Though people movers are common at the nation’s major airports, no other in place today is as comprehensive as the one Sky Harbor has planned.
"I have yet to find any airport that has been able to successfully do what we’re planning to do," said Jane Morris, the project’s manager.
Few airports have the need for such an elaborate system to move passengers around their facilities. But rapid growth at Sky Harbor — the nation’s fifth busiest airport — is pushing the facility’s road system and curbside space to its limits.
Though the airport’s runways allow up to 60 million passengers a year, there’s not enough capacity on roads and at the curb to accommodate so many people, said David Krietor, director of Phoenix’s aviation department. The airport handles 36 million passengers a year now, and it already gets too clogged at peak times such as spring break and during holiday weekends.
"Instead of waiting eight minutes for a bus, you wait 15 or 20 minutes for a bus, which for a lot of people is unacceptable," Krietor said.
The people mover will allow the ground transportation system to meet runway capacity by drastically cutting traffic at the curb. Instead of taking shuttle buses to remote car lots, other terminals or a future car rental facility, passengers will get on the people mover via stations beneath the terminals. Six stations are planned on the system.
The cars will carry 50 to 75 people and run every three minutes. The system will handle 2,700 passengers an hour in each direction.
Phoenix is studying how it will pay for the system. Krietor expects bonds and the existing passenger facility charge will cover most of the cost.
The system was originally set to start in 2006, when the light-rail line is slated to open. But the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks pushed back plans because of a plunge in air travel.
The airport now expects to open part of the system in 2008 with service to the east economy parking lot and Terminals 3 and 4. A second phase will open in 2012 to Terminal 2 and a planned car rental facility on the airport’s western edge. Also, it would run to the light-rail line at 44th and Washington streets. The light-rail line will run from Phoenix through Tempe to Mesa.
The airport will become one of a handful of facilities in the nation that links, or is planning to connect, light rail with a people mover system. The connection will be convenient, but not heavily used by passengers, said Daina Mann, a spokeswoman for Valley Metro Rail.
A study found about 1,900 one-way riders will use the connection a day, Mann said. Airport employees will make 80 percent to 90 percent of those trips.