Home MTA Economics Stewart Airport rail link just a waste

Stewart Airport rail link just a waste

by Benjamin Kabak

Did you know that New York City has a fourth airport that, once upon a time, was designated the next major Metropolitan-area airport? Well, so much for that plan.

Nestled in Orange County, just west of Newburgh, lies Stewart International Airport. It’s 80 miles outside of New York City, and if you can get there, it is the home of the some of the cheapest flights around the area. It never did achieve Gov. Rockefeller’s goals of becoming the fourth major airport in the region (behind LaGuardia, JFK and Newark), but that hasn’t stopped various state entities from trying to boost its profile.

The latest effort comes in the form of everyone’s favorite airport buzz phrase: a rail link. According to a report in Monday’s edition of The Sun, the MTA is studying the possibility of a rail link between Penn Station and the airport. The link, which would consist of a three-mile spur off of Metro-North’s Port Jervis line, would probably bring about a renewed interested in this transportation hub nestled just outside the world of New York City.

Annie Karni of The Sun has more:

Transit officials say a three-mile spur off the Port Jervis line on Metro-North Railroad, which could cost more than $600 million to construct, could be an efficient way to attract passengers and airlines to the underutilized upstate airport, where the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is expected to take control of operations in October.

The airport now is accessible only by country roads, and driving to the airport from Manhattan takes about an hour and a half without traffic. The former military base, located about 60 miles north of Manhattan, accommodated 300,000 passengers last year; transit officials estimate that its infrastructure could be expanded to process up to 10 million passengers annually.

The article is filled with various opinions on the rail link. Some officials say the area needs this fourth airport to be more accessible because the other three are, as any traveler can attest, overcrowded. But others, such as Jeffrey Zupan of the Regional Plan Association, think the rail link is not a financial viable idea unless it can siphon off upstate travelers who commute down to the city’s three other airports. “It’s going to be a real loser from an operating cost point of view. ” Zupan said to Karni. “It will have to run long distances and relatively frequent service, or people aren’t going to use it.”

Meanwhile, this idea seems somewhat ridiculous. It right now takes an hour and a half on Metro-North/NJ Transit to reach the Salisbury Mills stop from Penn Station. Considering that it would take another train ride to get to the airport and airlines are asking people to get there 90 minutes earlier, travelers would have to begin their journeys up to four hours before their scheduled departure time. That is quite inconvenient.

To me, this project seems like a no-brainer waste-of-money. But if the MTA is going to build something, they should fund it in a way similar to that used at JFK. The Authority could either have the airline passengers pick up the bill through a plane ticket fee and have the fares be such that costs are covered. With more pressing capital construction projects on the docket — Second Ave. subway, LIRR East Side Access plan, 7 line extension, Fulton St. hub — and a need for a JFK rail link, a line up to Stewart just seems superfluous and overly expensive at a time when the MTA really needs to prioritize.

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AHT August 7, 2007 - 2:16 am

We’ve already got a similar link — the LIRR’s Ronkonkoma line, which is a short bus or taxi ride to Islip McArthur Airport. The fact that nobody even thought to compare that plan to McArthur’s current situation just tells you how successful it’s been at attracting city travelers. Its primary customer base is Long Islanders who don’t want to deal with the traffic to JFK/LGA.

peter August 7, 2007 - 8:00 am

AHT – Nuts. You beat me to the punch.

Ronkonkoma is separated from MacArthur Airport by nothing more than a chainlink fence. Why the airlines (especially Southwest)dont figure out a way to lease a space at Penn Station so their passengers to check in there, take dedicated LIRR trains to Ronkonkoma to be get picked up by shuttlebuses and delivered straight to the Departure Gate – all in around 60 or 70 minutes, is a mystery to me.

drose August 7, 2007 - 9:20 am

I think another good comparison would be to Luton and Stansted airports outside of London. Much of the expansion of easyJet and Ryanair, and the cheap tickets they offer, is attributable to those airports and the additional capacity they gave for London takeoffs/landings. I think the rail link could make sense if fees are added to airline tickets for the metro area, since someone like Southwest would be more likely to fly into the airport with a better link into the city.

epc August 7, 2007 - 9:56 am

Stewart had a run in the 90s as a decent second tier airport. I lived in Poughkeepsie at the time. You could fly to Chicago, Raleigh, Boston, DC, Philly, Pittsburgh. At the time the passenger terminal was little more than a cleaned up ANG hangar with shared gates for all airlines. Delta, American and United pulled out as IBM downsized in the mid-90s and the state sat on plans to build a modern terminal.

I doubt that a rail link would improve usage, the target audience for the airport is Orange,Ulster, Dutchess and Rockland counties, all of which have decent access via the not-so-country roads of I84 and I287.

Get more flights in and more people will use the airport.

Marc Shepherd August 7, 2007 - 12:17 pm

I have to agree that the Penn Station-Stewart Airport route wouldn’t be very popular. Perhaps the link would have more appeal for people who are starting their trip much closer to Stewart Airport to begin with. I don’t know how many of those people would take the train. In my experience, most people in that part of New Jersey have cars.

The problem they’re trying to solve is very real. At some point in the next 20 years, all three of the major airports will be at capacity (LGA is already), and there is no room to expand. I suppose Stewart Airport could have a role to play, but I’m not sure whether a rail link helps.

Corbot6000 August 7, 2007 - 1:07 pm

1. It’s Port Jervis not Jarvis, just so you know.

2. The MTA has already secured some federal funds for the rail link through the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) back in mid-2005.

Here, a bit from a Sen. Schumer press release: “Senators Schumer and Clinton also secured Congressional authorization in the bill that will enable the MTA to pursue federal funds in future appropriations bills toward the future design and construction of a direct rail link to Stewart International Airport. The ‘New Start’ designation allows the MTA and other project leaders to purse initial design and alternative analysis, kick starting the project and putting it line to receive significant federal funding in the future. Stewart Rail Access would connect Metro-North station would involve capacity improvements on Metro-North’s Port Jervis Line from Suffern to Salisbury Mills, construction of an extension of the railroad into the airport from that point of the Port Jervis Line, construction of a new station(s) at the Airport, a new rail yard and purchase of needed rolling stock.”

There has been major overhauls of just about every station from Suffern to Salisbury Mills (expanded parking lots, new light poles, shelters, ramps, etc.). I think it may be a result of the funding released by this bill.

3. It should also be noted that, unlike the three other metro airports, Stewart is privately owned and operated by a British company. Gov. Spitzer approved the privatization bid back in 2000 or so when he was Attorney General.

4. The proposed rail link has all the potential to be a colosal waste of limited resources. What the MTA should be doing is looking to improve the regional system through mesaures that benefit regular riders. This can be achieved by upgrading service on the Port Jervis and Pascack Valley lines (weekend service is pretty sparse–I know because I have to use to visit my parents) and researching the feasibility of trans-Hudson rail service in the Mid-Hudson region (possibly via the Tappan Zee Bridge).

Still, I cannot deny that, on some level, the rail spur to Stewart does make sense. Just looking at a map, one realizes that where the tracks loop west above Salisbury Mills, the airport lies only a few miles north. It must be tantalizing for those guys at Stewart.

Benjamin Kabak August 7, 2007 - 1:10 pm

Thanks, Corbot. Got the word spelled right in one place.

Anyway, your info on the privatization is wrong. It was privatized but that was a huge disaster and a few years back PANYNJ voted to take over the lease. They’ll assume control of Stewart before the end of the year. That’s one of the reasons why the MTA is thinking about this rail link again.

Corbot6000 August 7, 2007 - 5:36 pm

Oh wow. That’s what you get for not paying attention.

Jesus, what a boondoggle that was–serves as yet another against lobbyist-driven privatization.

Thanks for keeping up on this issue.

Victoria Jeter August 7, 2007 - 5:41 pm

There’s another airport in the metropolitan area??? I’ve never heard of Stewart International Airport, and I’ve lived here for 20 years. It certainly never comes up when you’re searching for flights, what’s the secret

epc August 7, 2007 - 6:23 pm

JetBlue and Airtran have regularly scheduled service (mostly to Florida, Airtran also to Atlanta).

Delta, Northwest and USAirways have commuter service.

Chris H September 13, 2007 - 1:47 am

The money for the project will be coming primarily from the PANYNJ. Its not the MTA’s money that is being used. Considering that the PA just took over the least for Stewart, it is in its interest to maximize the asset. Moreover, the MTA (and NJT) benefit by having a funding source, other than their normal capital budget, to pay for upgrades to the Port Jervis/Main/Bergen Lines.

Second Ave. Sagas | Blogging the NYC Subways » Blog Archive » The MTA’s Capital future will not be free November 28, 2007 - 10:29 am

[…] tracks on the Tappan Zee Bridge, Penn Station Access for Metro-North (and Moynihan Station), a Stewart Airport rail connection, and computer-based train controls to allow for a higher train frequency. These proposals are […]

Blogking332 February 15, 2008 - 12:40 pm

THanks for your post. Good insight.
Check out this site for good tips on airport parking at various metro airports.

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[…] some folks in September noted that the Port Authority, operators of the airport, would be paying for the rail connection, […]

Alfred Beech May 13, 2008 - 8:45 am

I’m all for adding rail connections to airports, but I think connections to closer airports should be done first.

I vote for a rail link to LaGuardia first. Getting there from my house in Bushwick requires a subway and two bus transfers over an hour and 15 minutes.

After that, I’d vote for Islip, which is, as your commenters from the last article pointed out, right next to the the LIRR’s Ronkonloma line. Unfortunately, the terminal is on the opposite side of the property, so you either have to pay a $5 shuttle charge, or take a scenic hour walk (don’t ask) around airport property. It’s about an hour from Penn Station to Islip, and I’d think the one-seat ride would be an attractive alternative to a subway ride with a transfer to the air train.

Only then would I be in favor of a rail connector at Stewart.

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[…] 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 […]

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