Over the years, I’ve come to believe we spend far too much time talking about airports and far too much money building them. Yes, airports are an important piece of the New York economy, and those 67 million tourists we may attract this year have to get to the city somehow. But spending billions on airports — and more importantly, on building redundant means of accessing airports — doesn’t deliver much bang for the buck. The overwhelming number of New Yorkers simply aren’t interacting with airports on a day-to-day basis.
Still, the airports dominate the conversation. Thanks to ongoing construction and a refusal by the city and state to adequately manage traffic, getting to and from Laguardia can take hours these days, and the $2 billion Backwards AirTrain is years away. The Port Authority is also rebuilding Newark and renovating JFK. Unlike other transit projects, though, these dollars aren’t really fungible; revenue generated by airports must be spent on airports. The Port Authority cannot, in other words, shift airport money to other, more worthwhile projects.
Thus, airport projects move forward when other transit needs await funding, and the conversation inevitably turns to airports. At the end of June, the Port Authority, in various budget documents, dropped some airport-related bombshells in the form of a new fare structure for the AirTrains and new taxi and for-hire vehicle drop-off fees. I’ve been mulling over these new dollars and have some thoughts. But first the proposal.
The AirTrain has cost a flat $5 at JFK since 2003 and a similar rate at Newark since 2005. Meanwhile, in 2018, the JFK system saw over 20 million rides, a record, even as service on the driverless trains has been cut, and ridership has increased by six percent per year at Newark as well. Now the Port Authority plans to raise fares to $7.75 a ride starting on November 1. Bulk discounts should still be available, but this 55 percent increase is a steep one. Fares will be tabbed to inflation going forward.
Meanwhile, at some point in 2020, the Port Authority is going to implement taxi and for-hire vehicle pick-up and drop-off charges. Common at “peer” airports in LA, Chicago, San Francisco and DC, these fees allow the PA to generate more revenue for airport improvements. For-hire vehicles — the Ubers and Lyfts of the world — will be subject to a $4 pick-up and $4 drop-off surcharge at each airport, and yellow cabs will be subject to the pick-up surcharge only. Combined with PATH and toll increases, the new fees will generate $235 million in incremental revenue, and the Port Authority says these hikes are necessary due to “record infrastructure investment.” More on that shortly.
Thought #1: It’s going to be expensive to ride the AirTrain
It’s hard to understate how steep this fare hike is, and the AirTrain is going to be expensive — sticker-shock levels of expensive even. For someone connecting to the AirTrain via the subway, the ride will cost over $10, and any lower-cost benefits of the AirTrain are going to start to dissipate. A group of travelers or a family of four eying a transit trip to the airport but facing a price tag of $42 for the trip may just spring for a cab instead. It’s also hard to find any comparable system connecting an airport to a nearby transit hub that charges this month. Paris’ Orlyval, deep into the Parisian suburbs at Orly Airport, features a steep fare to the RER B stop at Antony but a low-cost integrated ticket all the way to Paris’ Zone 1. Nearly all other airtrain systems are free or much lower cost.
More importantly, though, these costs are going up for workers. We talk a lot about tourists when we discuss airport transit, but the workers — the employees who have to go every day — will have to pay steeper fares too. While discount, bulk tickets will still be available, the Port Authority is going to sunset 10-trip bulk purchases in 30 days rather than a year, and it’s not yet clear what that price point will be. Still, employees have pay full freight on airtrain, and these hikes can put this ride out of reach economically for many airport employees. The airtrain is much faster than the bus to JFK, and fare structures should be designed to encourage more efficient trips, especially for workers.
Thought #2: The Port Authority is spending a lot on expensive airport projects.
Along with the fare/fee proposal, the Port Authority released updated budget numbers, and everything just costs so much. The new Newark Airtrain is going to cost over $2 billion; the JFK Redevelopment will cost the Port Authority nearly $3 billion (up from $1 billion); and the Newark Terminal One project has seen its price tag jump by $350 million. While these are projected to be covered by revenue generated by the projects or private sources, the dollars just keep soaring ever upward, and cost containment is barely a part of the conversation.
Thought #3: The taxi/FHV drop-off and pick-up charges incentivize the wrong kind of behavior
In an ideal world, where we fight to keep cars off the road, transit routes to the airport would be fast, cheap and easy to navigate. The second-best option involves high-capacity vehicles that reduce or eliminate the need to use private cars for many trips. This new surcharge, when combined with low long-term parking rates, can be seen to push people toward their own cars instead of taxis. At the least, all cars entering the airports should be charged a drop-off/pick-up fee, and high-speed tolling technology could make this a seamless transaction.
Thought #4: The Laguardia AirTrain should be stopped
You’ll note that I didn’t mention the Backwards AirTrain in Thought #2 because this project deserves its own place on the list (and in the scrap heap of history). Based on new budget projections which add a net $390 million to the project, the Laguardia AirTrain is now projected to cost $2.05 billion. “The revised project cost,” the PA noted, “is informed by the planning efforts and preliminary engineering analysis underway as a result of previously authorized spending by the Board. The increase to the Capital Plan is $390 million, net of $160 million of reduced spending on other Aviation projects. This increase is projected to be covered by multiple sources, including: farebox revenue; airline cost recoveries; and future period [Passenger Facility Charges].”
Why is this project still going forward? It’s a $2 billion boondoggle that’s not expected to generate significant ridership and may be a worse choice than a no-build. It takes riders away from Manhattan to a 7 train that’s already overburdened or an LIRR line that runs once per hour and doesn’t connect through Jamaica. Even with a connection to car rental facilities, it’s a waste of a project and at $2 billion, a huge waste of money. It should be redesigned to serve a higher and better use, either through a connection to Jackson Heights or via Astoria. It’s now just flat-out silly.