For years, New York City’s airports have suffered from massive congestion, with the airspace over the city continually trapped in traffic. Delays at Kennedy, LaGuardia, or Newark Liberty airports have the tendency to back up the entire American flight system. As a result, in 2007, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the other New York area airports, agreed to take over operations of Stewart International, an under-utilized facility located in Orange County dozens of miles north of Manhattan. Stewart would serve as a new base for air service expansion.
The problem is that the airport is difficult to get to, not only because it’s far from New York’s 8 million inhabitants, but also because it offers no direct public transit links. In 2007, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority began a study of possible connections to the airport, pinpointing ferry, commuter rail, light rail, and bus rapid transit as potential options. Two years later, the MTA is closing in on a final decision about how to make the link.
To hear MTA talk about this project, you’d think that it’s also about improving service to Upstate New York, providing residents of Orange, Putnam, Ulster, Dutchess, and Rockland Counties a new airport from which to take flights. An additional benefit of improving links to Stewart would be improved transit for any commutes in the region. MTA argues that this area is the fastest-growing in New York State and therefore that it needs more transit.
But here’s the truth: of the 84 million trips taken on Metro-North commuter rail lines last year, only 2 million were made on the west side of the river, where the airport lies. Only 500 daily passengers ride the ferry between Newburgh on the west side of the river to Beacon on the east, where there’s access to Metro-North’s quicker Hudson Line. In other words, this area may be growing, but it’s still a very small travel market. Improved transit links in the region are going to affect a very small number of people. This project is really about connecting passengers in New York City to the airport.
Current options, according to the MTA, include constructing a dedicated rail link between the Stewart Mills Station on the Metro-North Port Jervis Line (west side) and improving bus service through new express service from Manhattan and from the surrounding counties. A ferry to New York City has been eliminated because it would take too long and be too expensive; a rail link to the Metro-North Hudson Line across the river has been removed from consideration because of cost and environmental concerns. The project, according to an article back in 2007, could cost one billion dollars.
Ben over at Second Avenue Sagas has written in both 2007 and 2008 on the poor thinking behind this project. The airport is quite far away from the city’s population centers and will therefore have difficulty attracting crowds from the city; the airport’s current offerings of flights to just five destinations — Philadelphia, Atlanta, Orlando, Ft. Lauderdale, and Detroit — indicate that a serious increase in demand there from locals is unlikely over the next few years. Few commuters are going to be willing ride the 90 minute plus train between Penn Station and the airport, so why is this link a priority? It certainly doesn’t seem likely to cut down on air congestion.
Let’s imagine that the $1 billion existed to build this project, unlikely enough considering the MTA’s dismal fiscal situation. Wouldn’t it make more sense, from the perspective of improving transit, to spend it on desperately needed projects such as the Second Avenue Subway? People in Orange County — population 350,000 — may want more transit, but so do the roughly 350,000 people who live in East Harlem and the Upper East Side, and the latter group, to say the least, is far more likely to use public transportation than the former. Certainly, cheap express buses should be considered, but a rail link seems completely unnecessary.
But what about relieving congestion at New York’s airports? As I already pointed out, I’m not sure how many people downstate are going to be willing to make the commute up to Stewart, so an investment there may be pointless. Here’s another option, however: invest the $1 billion in New York’s high-speed rail program, reducing the dependence of New Yorkers on planes to get to Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, and even Montréal and Toronto. Those destinations collectively account for 202 daily departures from New York area airports (109 to New York State destinations, 93 to Canadian destinations). Eliminating half of those flights would open up the equivalent of a full hour of rush-hour capacity at JFK Airport. Talk about congestion relief!
Image above: Stewart Airport Access map, from Metropolitan Transportation Authority