JFK AirTrain’s Fate Again Up In The Air

The JFK AirTrain is not even built, but it has already taken a roller coaster ride through either approval or oblivion in the past week. When the controversial proposal to construct a billion dollar train link from JFK Airport to downtown Jamaica and Howard Beach came before the City Planning Commission (CPC) Monday, it was expected that the body would give it the green light putting the AirTrain on track to begin construction. While the CPC did approve the project by a vote of 12 to 1, a surprise announcement by City Council Speaker Peter Vallone just prior to the CPC’s vote took most City Hall observers by surprise by saying he would call for a Council hearing next week. Just two weeks ago, Vallone appeared to take the position that the Council could pass up the opportunity to vote on the proposal, thus sending it directly to the CPC. Their okay would have been the final step in the City’s ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Process) procedure, a process that requires votes by affected local community boards, the entire borough board, the City Council and the City Planning Commission.
The project — despite heavy community opposition — had already passed the community and borough board stages. Then one Queens councilman, Morton Povman of Forest Hills, surprised observers by coming out against the project after the release of a scathingly critical report by the Council’s Economic and Transportation Committees, and he threatened to call for a full Council vote on the plan. A few days later, Povman withdrew his opposition after the Port Authority, the AirTrain’s builders, assured Povman that there would be no future expansion of the proposed elevated track for the train through Povman’s district to extend the AirTrain to LaGuardia. It appeared then that the AirTrain was again on track. But with Vallone’s announcement that the City Council will indeed review the merits of the project, opponents of the AirTrain now see a real opportunity to kill the project. "With today’s decision by the City Planning Commission to approve the JFK air link project, the Council will exercise our option to ‘call-up’ this land use acquisition and disposition.
The massive size and scope of this project warrants our full attention and review and its impacts must be examined and discussed, openly and publicly. There are clearly many questions and concerns, and we plan to address them all," Vallone said. He added that the Council then has 50 days to approve or disapprove the plan. One community leader, Vincent Raynor, said that "The Port Authority’s AirTrain project is in trouble. We can still stop this project. We need all of those who thought AirTrain was a done deal to get off their duffs and come to City Hall next week, May 11, to testify at the City Council’s Land Use Committee hearing on the AirTrain. This is our opportunity to turn this project on its head, and to have alternatives looked at in an open and objective manner." Roger Cohen, a managing director of the Washington, D.C.-based Air Transport Association reacted by saying "It is disappointing that the City Planning Commission has failed to recognize the glaring flaws of the Port Authority’s proposed Van Wyck El. This project, which will not provide a one-seat ride and which will not attract business or tourist travelers, is a waste of $600 million that could be used for much-needed on-airport improvements." He added, "We hope that the City Council leadership will reject this wasteful project and help identify a real solution to airport access."
The AirTrain proposal calls for the elevated, computer-driven train to make a loop around JFK with stops at all the terminals and parking lots then splitting in one of two directions. One would leave passengers off at the Howard Beach ‘A’ train station at the outskirts of the airport. The other would branch out on elevated tracks in the center of the Van Wyck Expwy., leaving passengers off at the downtown Jamaica LIRR-subway center. Proponents claim the train will alleviate traffic problems on the Van Wyck as well as provide an economic boost to the downtown Jamaica business district. Critics charge that the project will be virtually useless because it means travelers will have to change to either subways or Long Island Rail Road trains, that construction of the el will disrupt traffic on the already overcrowded Van Wyck Expwy., as well as damaging many homes and lowering property values. Prior to Monday’s City Planning Commission vote, the commission’s own review committee ripped into the project, but chairman Joseph Rose, a mayoral appointee indicated that the commission voted to approve the Van Wyck right-of-way because the Mayor and the Governor had struck a deal to move the project forward. The lone dissenting vote was cast by Kathy Hirata Chin, who is also a mayoral appointee.
Stephen McGuire contributed to this article.

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