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Jamaica revival takes back seat to train safety

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Community leaders in Jamaica and officials at Kennedy Airport are waiting to see what impact Friday’s AirTrain derailment and the project’s delayed completion will have on a major economic development initiative in downtown Jamaica.

While it may take a while to truly assess how development will be affected, leaders remain focused on the investigation into what caused Friday’s fatal crash and how to make necessary corrections to the light-rail system.

Once completed, the $1.9 billion AirTrain system will enable airport passengers to pick up mass transit at Jamaica or Howard Beach to continue into Manhattan. Long Island Rail Road lines, three subway lines and more than a dozen bus lines are available at Jamaica, and the A subway line can be caught at Howard Beach.

Service around the airport and to the Howard Beach station was scheduled to begin later this year and service to Jamaica was to begin by next spring. But the project has been put on hold since Friday’s accident while federal and local officials conduct their investigation.

The AirTrain has been touted by supporters as a great economic revival tool for the area, including Kennedy Airport, downtown Jamaica and the Howard Beach station, and it is still unclear what effect the derailment will have on that revival.

The AirTrain is one of the Port Authority’s components to keeping Kennedy Airport competitive by enticing passengers and businesses to use the airport. One airline, American, has said it would consider creating a hub at Kennedy if a one-seat ride to Manhattan were available, U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-St. Albans) said in August.

“It’s a bad thing for the airport clearly because we are trying to connect the terminals,” Meeks said of Friday’s crash. “This hurts the economy tremendously, but it’s better to take a further hurt economically to make sure that engineering-wise it’s done right. I’d rather take an extra year to make sure it’s done safely.”

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which manages the airport and the AirTrain, has not considered what effect the crash will have on the airport or even when the rail link will be able to open.

“We need to determine what happened out there before we can deal with things like scheduling and cost rates,” said PA spokesman Pasquale DiFulco.

In downtown Jamaica, business and community leaders were awaiting the AirTrain as one of the key steps in the area’s revitalization, along with projects like Jamaica Center, home to the Jamaica Multiplex Cinemas and national retailers like The Gap, Old Navy, and Walgreens. But they, too, are more concerned with the cause of the crash than the repercussions, said Carlisle Towery, president of the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation, one of the project’s biggest supporters.

“We are confident the accident during a test will be thoroughly investigated and any appropriate adjustments will be made to enable AirTrain’s completion,” he said in a statement.

Howard Beach will also be affected, but construction on the new station joining the AirTrain platform with the city’s subway line, is continuing, said state Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer (D-Rockaway Beach).

“The station wouldn’t be affected as far as completing it,” she said. “We’ll just have a nice station and we’ll just have to wait for the AirTrain to catch up.”

But the economic impact aside, the community is anxious to see that the AirTrain is done right.

“The community wants to ensure that it’s safe,” said James Davis, chairman of Community Board 12. “Had it happened a little further north the debris would have fallen on the cars on the Van Wyck Expressway.”

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com, or by phone at 229-0300, Ext. 138.

Posted 7:23 pm, October 10, 2011
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