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AirTrain stirred opposition in SE Queens before crash

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Since the AirTrain’s inception more than five years ago, the project has been the subject of severe criticism and reluctant support from residents and community leaders across southeast Queens.

With last week’s accident and death of a construction worker who was on the train for a test ride, opposition to the project is sure to resurface.

The $1.9 billion transportation system will connect Kennedy Airport with all LIRR train lines, except the Port Washington branch, the E, J, and Z subway lines, and more than a dozen bus lines in downtown Jamaica at Sutphin Boulevard and Archer Avenue. Passengers going to Howard Beach will be able to connect with the A subway line.

But the plan, which is on hold after Friday’s fatal accident, has been faulted for not being a one-seat ride from Kennedy Airport to Manhattan, and residents who live along the Van Wyck Expressway have complained the construction was disruptive and damaging their homes.

Many critics, including former Borough President Claire Shulman, criticized the project for being a two-seat ride, forcing passengers to transfer to other modes of transportation to get to Manhattan.

Shulman reluctantly backed the AirTrain as a first step toward a one-seat ride and was disappointed when she learned that the AirTrain cars would not be able to run on the LIRR tracks as she was originally told.

“Then we discover that the cars they bought for the AirTrain are not compatible – it’s not that they wouldn’t fit on the tracks, but the cars are too lightweight,” Shulman said in an interview with the TimesLedger in April 2001. The cars are not heavy enough to meet federal crash regulations on the LIRR tracks.

Although Gov. George Pataki has discussed the possibility of extending the AirTrain system to provide a one-seat ride to Manhattan by 2005, no specific plans have been developed. American Airlines head Don Carty has indicated the airline would consider expanding its role at Kennedy if the airport had one-seat access to midtown Manhattan, U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-St. Albans) said in August.

Area community boards had similar reservations, approving the plan with stipulations including provisions that the Port Authority insure homeowners for any damage caused during the construction, repair water pipes compromised during the project, monitor traffic and pollution resulting from construction and hire minorities for the work.

Many, including City Councilman Allan Jennings (D-Jamaica), expressed concerns about the safety of the AirTrain, which was designed to run straight from the airport to downtown Jamaica without a human operator or provisions for emergency stops.

“The community didn’t want it in the first place,” he said. “There’s something of an ‘I told you so’ attitude.”

But others are looking forward, saying that the important thing is to find out what caused the accident and the death of 23-year-old Kelvin DeBourgh in order to prevent future accidents.

“The opponents of the AirTrain should not use this incident to fortify or further their argument,” said Councilman Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach). “That would not be fair to the individual who died or his family.”

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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