AirTrain funding upheld by federal court ruling

By Bryan Schwartzman

A three-judge panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals decided Oct. 12 there was nothing improper about the Federal Aviation Administration's 1999 decision to allow the Port Authority to use funds generated from the Passenger Facility Charge to construct the AirTrain.

The $1.5 billion project will give airline passengers in Manhattan a fast and cost-effective way to use John F. Kennedy International Airport by linking Jamaica Station to a train that will circle the terminals. The Passenger Facility Charge is a $3 fee travelers pay each time they fly out of JFK, LaGuardia and Newark airports.

Judges Guido Calebreci, Robert Katzmann, and former Connecticut Gov. Thomas Meskil heard arguments in early September from lawyers representing the Southeast Queens Concerned Neighbors and the Committee for Better Transit against the FAA and Port Authority.

“We are very happy that the court upheld the FAA's record of decision,” said Greg Trevor, a spokesman for the Port Authority.

In 1999 the FAA decided the Port Authority could use the charge, which is meant for airport improvements, to build the AirTrain.

Stephen DeCastro, a lawyer for the Southeast Queens Concerned Neighbors, argued that the Port Authority did not disclose the full nature of the pile driving and construction involved in the Van Wyck Expressway portion of the project. DeCastro contended that since the public was not made fully aware of AirTrain's project details, public money should not be used to build it.

But the judges decided the public did receive sufficient warning about the construction and adequate descriptions of its affect on traffic flow.

AirTrain construction has progressed at a lightning pace over the past 10 months.

“We are happy the court agreed with the Port Authority,” said Carlisle Towery, president of the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation, which has advocated the AirTrain over the past three years.

Towery has also proposed that a hotel be built at the AirTrain terminus in downtown Jamaica.

“Some dreams become nightmares,” said Margo Hill, president of Southeast Queens Concerned Neighbors, in reference to the proposed hotel.

“We can no longer fight the AirTrain's funding because the court turned down the appeal,” said Hill. “We are going to reassess our priorities and continue to fight for the communities.”

Hill said that even though they lost the case, she felt the effort was worthwhile because it showed it was possible to fight government agencies.

Southeast Queens Concerned Neighbors has argued that construction of the AirTrain would increase traffic and inconvenience homes along the Van Wyck Expressway without benefiting residents, since the train will not stop between the airport and downtown Jamaica.

But the judges said in their decision they were only ruling on whether it was legal to use the PFC fee for the construction, not whether the project was a just or sound one.

“I wasn't surprised at all by the decision,” said City Councilwoman Julia Harrison (D-Flushing) who was the only council member from Queens to oppose the project when City Council voted on the AirTrain in 1999.

“I certainly think the AirTrain is a fraud, a consumer fraud,” said Harrison.

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