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Editorial: The missing link

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For more than two years we have argued that the Port Authority's plan to build an AirTrain connecting Kennedy Airport with Midtown Manhattan was destined to fail because the proposal does not offer a one-seat ride. Despite our protest and that of many others, including virtually every civic association in Queens, the Port Authority was determined to move forward with its plan.

Then last week a ray of unexpected hope appeared on the horizon. Charles Gargano, the director of the Empire State Development Corp., announced that the state was looking for proposals from private companies to develop a one-seat rail link to connect the airport with the new Penn Station, which is under construction in Manhattan. The rail link would use existing Long Island Rail Road tracks to get riders to Jamaica and would connect with the tracks already being built at the airport to accommodate the AirTrain. Under this plan, passengers will be able to check in their luggage at Penn Station and not worry about it until they arrive at their destination.

Gargano explained that the ridership would pay for the cost of the train and that eventually investors could turn a profit on the train. Gargano said the system he is proposing would be similar to that used at London's Heathrow Airport.

Where has Mr. Gargano been for the last two years? Why didn't the EDC speak out when the Port Authority's proposal was in the planning stage?

If we understand it correctly, the EDC plan does not replace the Port Authority's AirTrain. There will be two services to Kennedy Airport. How long does one have to be part of government before that makes sense? The EDC plan is based on the premise that people will not use a rail link that requires them to schlep their luggage from one train to another. Exactly. Then why, in light of this new proposal, should the Port Authority go forward with its Air Train?

Building two trains just doesn't make sense. Then again, nothing in this entire process makes sense. For more than a decade, transportation experts have agreed that the city's two airports, Kennedy and LaGuardia, need a modern, high-speed link to Manhattan. Ideally, the experts said, this rail link should also connect Kennedy with LaGuardia. To finance its plan, the Port Authority, which runs the city's airports, is using money collected as a surcharge from passengers arriving or departing form Kennedy and LaGuardia. The catch was that this money could only be used to improve airport related services.

At no time, as far as we know, did the Port Authority, the MTA, the EDC, city and state officials get together to come up with a comprehensive plan that would ensure the viability of these two great airports far into the 21st century. Nor was consideration given to the fact that these airports do not exist in a vacuum. The creation of the AirTrain will have significant impact on the quality of life in a number of southeast Queens neighborhoods. And yet, no one is meeting with community leaders from this part of the world.

We see the EDC plan as a major step in the right direction and we think that putting it in the hands of private enterprise will go a long ways toward making certain that this train will be an economic success. But the planning process up to this point has been a disaster. When they teach urban development at colleges across the nation, they should study the rail link as an example of how things should not be done.

Updated 10:26 am, October 12, 2011
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