By JEREMY OLSHAN
The 3,500-mile transcontinental railroad that connected the east and west coasts took six years to complete.
The eight miles of track connecting Kennedy Airport to the subway and Long Island Railroad has taken nearly four decades to be realized.
When it comes to railroad building, it’s easier to cross the Rockies than the Rockaways.
The Port Authority’s AirTrain will finally open on Dec. 17 with great fanfare, despite the death of an operator during last year’s test run, and despite the admission that the $1.9 billion project is at best only a first step toward improving access to the city’s airports.
The automated and elevated light rail will stop at each of the airport’s terminals before splitting into two spurs – one over the median of the Van Wyck Expressway to a renovated Jamaica station, where travelers can transfer to the E, J, or Z trains and the Long Island Railroad, another in Howard Beach for a transfer to the A train.
The AirTrain does not, however, provide the direct, one-seat ride from Kennedy to Manhattan that critics have long contended is the only real way to make a mass transit trip to the airport appealing.
A study sponsored by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) is underway to investigate options for connecting the AirTrain directly to the downtown transit hub, however, and the Port Authority says it would likely play a great role in such a project.
The Authority estimates that 34,000 people will take the eight-to-12 minute ride each day. Rides on the AirTrain will cost $5 each way, which will more likely appeal to business travelers than families of four, who would still most likely opt for a taxi.
Train to the Plane
Since the 1960s, efforts to create rail access to the airports have been derailed by high price tags, unrealistic plans and the usual squabbling over whose backyards would have to be disturbed.
In 1995, the Port Authority changed course by killing plans for a 22-mile railroad that would connect both airports directly to Manhattan and would cost, by some estimates, $4.5 billion.
Instead, the authority began advocating the current link at Jamaica and Howard Beach, infuriating many elected officials, transit advocates and the southeast Queens communities neighboring the airport.
Then Mayor Rudy Giuliani, no friend of the agency, advocated that the city take control of its airports. Transit advocates favored the use of the old Rockaway line of the Long Island Railroad, which they argued could easily be reworked as a direct rail link into Manhattan.
The Port Authority dismissed the Rockaway plan as unfeasible, some critics argued, because it would disrupt white neighborhoods whereas the Jamaica plan went through predominantly black ones.
The authority had to convince a lukewarm City Council, and much to the authority’s chagrin, go through the series of public hearings required under the city’s arduous land use process.
But nothing could stand in the way of the agency’s cowcatcher. The agency converted its opponents, or when necessary, plowed right through them. City Council and the mayor did 180-degree reversals. And soon, the Straphangers Campaign, the Air Transportation Authority and various community organizations were all aboard.
Ticket To Ride
How did the Port Authority accomplish this? In a word, the converted say: money.
"The general rule is that if you have your own piggy bank, you win," said Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign, a group dedicated to playing watchdog over the MTA and Port Authority.
"Unlike the earlier proposals, this one was doable because they had the money and the wherewithal to make it happen."
More than $1 billion of the funding came from the $3 surcharge imposed on every departing passenger from the airport. The rest came from the authority itself. Early on, the authority gained the backing of then Rep. Floyd Flake, and his successor, Gregory Meeks, with promises of community development.
While it’s unclear how many travelers will eat and shop in Jamaica before transferring to the subway and Long Island Railroad, the arrival of the AirTrain has brought the attention of developers to the Sutphin Boulevard neighborhood.
"It will not improve access to Southeast Queens, but we’re hoping at the very least it serves as an economic engine for the region," Councilman Leroy Comrie said.
Critics argue that the Port Authority has wasted billions on a train line that few will use.
Congressman Anthony Weiner said, "I think the AirTrain is safe, but I’m still not a believer that a lot of people will take it. I hope I’m wrong. I think that it’s still going to be a difficult sell to get people out of a taxi."
Still Weiner was optimistic about development in the downtown Jamaica area as a result of the AirTrain, saying, "There has already benn significant investment around Jamaica Station. Hopefully, more will follow. Right now, I think the primary consideration is getting people out of their cars and off of the Van Wyck Expressay so we can improve infrastructure. I think we’re on the right track for that . . . Whether it will create a boom, the jury will be out on that in a while."
But if the opposition did have one success, activist George Haikalis said it was convincing the Port Authority to make the link more compatible with the subway and LIRR. The original plans were changed to make the AirTrain a standard gauge railroad with a third rail.
But the stations and tracks at the airport itself are designed such that it would be almost impossible for a regular subway car to make the journey, he said. The Port Authority disputes this contention.
Tragedy On The Tracks
The safety of the project came into question after a test run in September 2002, when 23-year-old operator Kelvin DeBourgh was crushed by falling cinder blocks intended to simulate the weight of passengers.
An investigation determined that he rounded the curve too quickly, and that for some reason technicians had turned off a mechanism limiting the speed of the train. The DeBourgh family is suing the authority for $100 million.
To activists like Haikalis the incident only confirmed criticisms of the design’s safety and feasibility.
"Port Authority did it on the cheap, sort of the way they built the Trade Center," he said.
The Port Authority disagrees, and calling DeBourgh’s death a tragedy, says every effort is being made to ensure the safety of the AirTrain.
Take the AirTrain
As for the utility of what they have created, spokesman Pasquale DiFulco said that at the very least the number of airport employees who will use the service should substantially alleviate traffic on the Van Wyck.
"Even if not a single passenger uses it, it would still be a great boon. That’s why we are giving a substantial discount of $40 for a monthly pass."
While the Port Authority plans a media campaign to coincide with the opening of the AirTrain, DiFulco said he think the service will sell itself.
"People will be sitting in traffic on the Van Wyck and see it zipping by at 40 miles per hour, while they stare at their wristwatches."