Volume 16 • Issue 43 | March 26 - April 1, 2004


An airport-commuter link is crucial for Downtown

By Carl Weisbrod

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert
Carl Weisbrod
In the next 30 days, one of the most important decisions in the Downtown rebuilding process will be made: the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., together with the Port Authority, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the city’s Economic Development Corporation will unveil the preferred alternative for direct rail access from Long Island and JFK Airport to Lower Manhattan. The recommendation will also outline how this critical infrastructure project can be funded.

As Lower Manhattan’s redevelopment moves forward, transportation remains Downtown’s most critical investment; it is the foundation on which the 21st-century, revitalized Downtown will be built. The retention of major Downtown employers and the attraction of new ones will depend largely on our commitment to improving Lower Manhattan’s transportation infrastructure. Projects including regional airport and commuter rail access and the creation of the World Trade Center/Fulton Street transit hub remain Lower Manhattan’s top priorities.

Rail access to JFK is the centerpiece of Mayor Bloomberg’s Vision for Lower Manhattan; it has been strongly endorsed by Governor Pataki; it is, along with the transit hubs, the highest transportation priority for Downtown’s largest employers and it has been actively supported by Community Board 1. All recognize that access to the region’s airports is essential for the competitiveness of a world-class central business district in today’s global economy. And, for the business community, an easier commute for Long Island’s important and growing labor pool is crucial.

However, of the $21 billion appropriated by the federal government for the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan, only $4.55 billion has been dedicated specifically to transportation. Of this $4.55 billion, $1.7 billion has been allocated to build the permanent World Trade Center PATH station, $500 million reserved to accommodate the anticipated throng of tourist buses and reconstruct Downtown streets, $750 million to overhaul the Fulton Street complex (projects strongly favored by Downtown businesses), and $450 million to modernize the South Ferry subway station. An additional $900 million has been allocated to the reconstruction of West Street.

Just $250 million has been identified for JFK/Long Island rail access.

Meanwhile, direct rail access to JFK airport and Long Island will cost anywhere from $2 billion-$5 billion (the exact cost to become clearer when the L.M.D.C. recommendation, with its preferred alternative among four it is now studying, is unveiled next month).

One key question will be how the gap between the available transportation funds and these pressing transportation needs will be bridged. Some funding may come from the Port Authority as part of the deal negotiated by the city last year to extend the lease at both JFK and LaGuardia Airports.

The Port Authority, as owner of the World Trade Center site and as the long-term lessee at the airports has a direct economic stake in seeing stronger transit links between the airports and Downtown. It is also considering extending the PATH line out to Newark Airport. An additional source of funds could be L.M.D.C. itself, which still has about $1 billion in unallocated resources. A third source of funds might be additional passenger facilities charges on airline travelers, who are already paying for the newly opened AirTrain at JFK.

Unlike our global counterparts, today access to the airports from Manhattan is unreliable. Currently, 70 to 80 minutes is required to travel to the JFK terminals from Lower Manhattan by public transportation, and with at least one change in mode of transportation. With the AirTrain at JFK now in service, travel time via mass transit still averages 61 to 65 minutes. But travel time to JFK by automobile, taxi, or bus – especially at rush hour – is often erratic and can also take well over an hour.

Equally importantly, it is impossible to get to Lower Manhattan today with a one-seat ride from Long Island, where 10% of the Downtown workforce lives. Direct rail access from JFK to Downtown also could provide a much easier commute for Long Island workers – in other words, a double benefit for the city and the region.

Lower Manhattan is in a unique position to rival or exceed other central business districts by offering airport access not only to one, but to two international airports. This would not only maintain, but enhance Lower Manhattan’s role as the nation’s 3rd largest central business district and the world center of finance.

We must fully commit to this vital project now. The public investments in our transportation infrastructure we make now will trigger huge private investments that will strengthen the city’s and the region’s economies for decades to come.

Carl Weisbrod is president of the Alliance for Downtown New York, which manages Lower Manhattan’s business improvement district.


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