With ARC in limbo, a hazy future for StewartBy
While speaking at a House Committee hearing on transportation and infrastructure last week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg warned of an impending crisis in the northeast. “The Northeast is approaching a transportation crisis,” the mayor said. “Our airports are among the most clogged, our highways are among the most congested, and our train corridor is the most heavily used in the country. And all of that is just going to get worse, as the region’s population is expected to grow by 40% by 2050.”
On the heels of that committee meeting, the Regional Plan Association issued a report on the state of our airports. The tale they tell is not a new one; we’ve known for years that the metropolitan area’s three major airports are well above capacity. Yet, the numbers they throw out — a need for an additional 78 peak-hour flights per day — are staggering. The need to expand is one that could have dire economic consequences.
“The crucial link between air travel and economic prosperity is threatened by a lack of adequate capacity in our aviation system. We need to start planning now for future growth,” Robert Yaro, president of the RPA, said. “The cost of building airport capacity, while significant, must be weighed against the even greater toll on the region’s economy if we do nothing.”
Enter Stewart Airport. Located just 60 miles outside of Manhattan, Stewart has been the go-to airport for saving the region from air congestion for as long as I can remember, and the plans to use it have never made much sense. In 2007, the MTA announced a study to explore a rail link between Manhattan and Stewart. For $600 million, the authority would have provided a 90-minute ride to the tiny airport, and I long believed this to be a waste of money. Stewart is just too far away and adds too much time to a trip to be as popular as it must be to alleviate the pressure at Laguardia, JFK and Newark.
As ARC hit the ground running, though, it seemed as though Stewart would be eligible for a rail link via the new tunnel, but now that ARC is dead, so too seems Stewart Airport’s future. The RPA study doesn’t believe Stewart is a viable fourth airport, and they believe the Port Authority is overplaying the importance of its upstate property which is on pace to draw only 400,000 passengers this year. Patrick McGeehan of The Times has more:
Jeffrey M. Zupan, an analyst with the Regional Plan Association who led the study, said he forecast that Stewart would draw only about half the traffic the Port Authority hoped for. By the time the four airports controlled by the Port Authority are drawing 150 million passengers a year, only about 3.5 million of them, or just over 2 percent, will be using Stewart, Mr. Zupan said….
The best prospect for luring travelers from the city and close-in suburbs to Stewart is an express train, Mr. Zupan said. But elected officials, most notably New York’s senior senator, Charles E. Schumer, had pinned hopes on running trains from Midtown Manhattan through a new tunnel under the Hudson River and up the west side of the Hudson.
Now that New Jersey’s governor, Chris Christie, has scrapped the plan for that rail tunnel, the idea of direct trains to Stewart appears to be fading. Senator Schumer said, however, that a rail link to Stewart was still more feasible than some of the ideas for airport expansion laid out in the study last week, like filling in part of Jamaica Bay to add a runway at Kennedy.
“Stewart will still be a needed airport, but without the rail link, the chance of its really alleviating the overcrowding at the other airports is minimal,” Mr. Schumer said in an interview. “It will be a secondary airport — important but secondary.”
Ultimately, the airport issue is part of a wider problem. New York needs better access. Uniquely situated on an island, the city’s central business district is choked by a lack of expansion. We haven’t added roads, rails or airport capacity to the area in decades, and the economy will begin to suffer as congestion and delays worsen. Stewart won’t be and never was the answer, but something will have to give.