By James DeWeese
The approval, which Republican Gov. George Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced in a joint press release, would clear the way for $2 billion in unused Liberty Zone federal tax credits to be redirected to the project.Congress must still approve the move.Bloomberg and Pataki, strong supporters of the $6 billion transit initiative that would use specially equipped trains on existing AirTrain and LIRR tracks and a new tunnel under the East River to connect the Queens airport and the World Trade Center hub, viewed the announcement as a victory, although a major transit advocacy group worried the link could divert badly needed resources from other transportation projects. Congress could vote as early as next month.”By improving regional access to Lower Manhattan, we can continue the area's dramatic rebirth from the attacks of Sept. 11 and ensure its future as an economic engine for the entire city,” Bloomberg said in a release.Pataki, who announced his support for boring a tunnel under the East River to accommodate the project during a lavish luncheon at Battery Park Ritz-Carlton in May, offered a similar assessment.”By creating this new rail link, we will provide dramatically improved access to Lower Manhattan and reattract the tens of thousands of jobs that were lost after Sept. 11,” said Pataki, who also heaped praise on the Bush administration.Planners said the link, which could be operational as early as 2013, would cut travel time between Jamaica and downtown by 15 minutes for commuters. Airport users, who would ride trains that depart four times per hour, could travel between the airport and Manhattan in 36 minutes.Commuter trains traveling the rail link would depart from Fulton Street in Lower Manhattan every six minutes, stopping at East New York, Nostrand Avenue and Atlantic Avenue before arriving in Jamaica 21 to 22 minutes later.Airport-bound trains would depart every 15 minutes, stopping only at Atlantic Avenue before arriving at the airport.Carlisle Towery, president of the Greater Jamaica Development Corp., said his group is pleased with project but wants to ensure that Jamaica is not left in the dust.”Government should not exploit this location just to grease it and make it where people can zip through,” Towery said. “These public investments ought to include funds to make (Jamaica) a destination.”In March, while the plan was still in its infancy, state Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-St. Albans) submitted a letter to Pataki and John Whitehead, president of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., offering a similar assessment. “I respectfully request that any final plan of action that is chosen incorporate within it specific local development incentives and programs for the Jamaica area,” Smith wrote. In addition to the $2 billion in tax credits and federal block grant monies that would be dedicated to the link's construction, city and state officials said the MTA would contribute $400 million to the project.But Gene Russianoff of the transit advocacy group Straphangers Campaign said he was concerned that the project might detract from the cash-strapped agency's regular maintenance and service commitments, including track up-keep, new car purchases and construction of the Second Avenue subway line.”For those of us who were worried that this project would compete with transportation needs, sticking $400 million in for the plan really exacerbates our concerns,” he said.Russianoff said he doubted the MTA has the money to pursue the rail link, which he said probably would not serve enough passengers to justify its cost, without diverting funds from the agency's $22 billion, five-year plan to overhaul “the guts of the system.””The cupboard is bare,” Russianoff said. “The MTA has an $11 billion gap, so where is the money?”Last month state Comptroller Alan Hevesi said the MTA had relied too heavily on debt in order to finance its capital improvements and maintenance projects. In a report on New York City budget gaps, Hevesi said the MTA's own gap would only increase with interest and debt service payments.Late last month the board of the MTA voted to hold public hearings in the fall on possible hikes in commuter and weekly and monthly fare cards, as well as tolls. Reach reporter James DeWeese by e-mail at email@example.com, or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.