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AirTrain awaits millionth rider six months later

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The AirTrain offers service within the terminals of the airport for free and between the airport and Jamaica as well as between JFK and Howard Beach for a $5 fee, arguably high by some commuters' standards.

The rail system controversy began in its early stages of construction, long before it opened its doors to commuters, and has continued with price, accommodation and transferring complaints. Proponents still argue the benefits of the system are immediate and long-lasting.

"Looking at the number of users alone, the results have shown many commuters are using AirTrain on an exclusive basis. Employees and commuters both enjoy the benefits of a fast and convenient rail system," Port Authority spokesman Pasquale DiFulco said in a phone interview "It takes cars off the roads, giving environmental and quality-of-life benefits."

Before the AirTrain, travelers could take the subway to Howard Beach and a free shuttle to the airport, amounting to a $2 one-way trip to the airport. The new rail system has commuters contending that there was no need for this project.

"Why fix something that's not broken?" Ana Levine asked, while buying a MetroCard in the Howard Beach station. Levine visits Manhattan frequently from Massachusetts and finds the new system simply a more pricey option.

Levine was one of a relatively small group of passengers boarding or leaving the AirTrain at the Howard Beach and Jamaica stations on two separate days last week.

"It makes no sense to pay $5 now for a system that worked well before and was $3 less," Levine said. "Add in the tax money to pay for the project, and it's simply a waste of money. The system was fine before."

These complaints rival those of the Train to the Plane project, an express service that ran from Manhattan to Howard Beach from 1978 to 1990. After arriving in Howard Beach, commuters would take a shuttle bus to the airport. The service failed due to the inconvenience of transfers and the low ridership attributed in part to what was believed by some riders to be an expensive $4 fare. But supporters of the AirTrain maintain that this time around the service is a success.

While the prices and transfers may be of concern to some, DiFulco said the benefits of the AirTrain far surpass the few complaints.

"You pay for the convenience of the system," he said. "With buses you were at the mercy of the traffic. Sometimes the ride could take 15 minutes, sometimes 45. Now you have a dedicated system guaranteed to get you where you want in eight to 10 minutes."

Online forums have found commuters griping that the system simply is not worth the price and is a complete hassle.

"What a waste of money that AirTrain was. They spent millions of dollars on a train that goes between two stops," one posting on www.gothamist.com stated. Similar postings offered commuters' wishes that for so much money there should have been more stops or a direct link into Manhattan.

"They need something that goes from the airport to the city without two or three transfers. Get me to Penn Station or Grand Central direct from the terminal and that's a good thing," said Mike Cordelli, a resident of Connecticut.

"Have me take a subway to get to the LIRR, then purchase a ticket, get on the LIRR, then purchase another ticket and get on the AirTrain, and I may as well have just driven like I usually do."

But even with these complaints, many commuters are opting for the AirTrain as their mode of transportation to John F. Kennedy International Airport.

An independent study showed that since its opening, the AirTrain has serviced more than 3.6 million passengers, with an average daily ridership of 26,500 in an attempt to alleviate traffic headaches, making JFK a more commuter-friendly airport. The AirTrain was expected to have had its 1 millionth paying passenger this week.

"My administration has made it a priority to improve access to our airports," Gov. George Pataki said in statement. "The growing popularity of AirTrain JFK demonstrates the usefulness of this important rail link and shows why we prioritized this issue."

Port Authority Vice Chairman Charles Gargano said the service also has a wide spectrum of economic benefits.

"Faster, more dependable travel to and from JFK helps attract and keep businesses and supports our tourism industry," he said. "AirTrain JFK also is an economic engine for Queens. Construction of the system created thousands of jobs and its 24-hour-a-day operation supports nearly 140 permanent jobs, the vast majority of which are filled by local residents."

Despite these benefits, forum-posters still grappled over their disappointments with the system while others touted its success, saying the few technicalities and higher price are only small expenses for a convenient fast link to JFK.

"For those of us who travel more often and don't have a cadre of friends and relatives waiting anxiously by the phone for us to call and ask for a ride to the airport, dropping $70 to $80 on every trip for a shuttle service gets tiresome pretty fast," one commuter posted.

"Because AirTrain doesn't go all the way into Manhattan it must necessarily be classified as a half-baked solution. But we cannot ignore the fact that AirTrain has opened up low-cost, reasonably fast travel to JFK to scores of communities that didn't have such options before."

Reach intern Mallory Simon by e-mail at news@timesledger.com.

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