By Courtney Dentch

The long-awaited AirTrain Light Rail System, linking John F. Kennedy International Airport to subway and Long Island Rail Road stations, could begin shuttling passengers this fall, the Port Authority said Monday at a Queens Borough Board meeting.

Trains could begin running between the airport and the Howard Beach station as early as October, and the line to downtown Jamaica could be in operation next spring, said Quentin Brathwaite, project manager for the Port Authority.

The $1.9 billion transportation system will connect the airport with the A subway line in Howard Beach, and with LIRR trains and the E, J, and Z subway lines in downtown Jamaica at Sutphin Boulevard and Archer Avenue.

Once the lines are in operation, construction will still continue at Jamaica station where LIRR platforms and the subway mezzanine are being replaced, and a new station mezzanine is being built, said Jim Lysaght, also a Port Authority project manager. The Jamaica station should be complete by 2005, he said.

The guide rails for the airport loop, which will provide free transportation between the terminals, are also complete and the Port Authority is finishing construction on the rail stations, Brathwaite said.

One remaining question is the fare, which has not been set for rides to Jamaica and Howard Beach.

“We still don’t know,” Brathwaite said. “The answer has to be coming soon.”

Before the system can be opened, however, trains will have to undergo four to six months of testing because they will be computer driven and capable of operating without a human driver. A control tower will monitor their movements.

The lack of a human operator was cause for concern at the board meeting. City Councilmen Allan Jennings (D-Jamaica) and James Sanders (D-Laurelton) raised questions about the potential of crime or emergency situations on the unmanned trains.

“There’s not one single emergency exit on that rail,” Jennings said. “If something tragic should happen, how would these people exit the rail?”

Should a problem arise, the control tower could electronically move the train to the closest station, where police or paramedics, or other emergency assistance could meet the train and resolve the problem, Brathwaite said.

Lysaght said passengers could use walkways alongside the rail to leave the train if there was no other option.

Borough President Helen Marshall, who toured the trains last week, said help is never far away.

“One of the things in the cars is a little rubber strip that runs behind each seat,” she said. “You press it and they’re in touch with you.”

The trip to the Jamaica station should take between four and eight minutes, with trains running at the same interval.

The Port Authority is also working with the city Parks Department and the Department of Transportation beautification efforts to clean up the Van Wyck Expressway, Brathwaite said. The agency intends to plant flora along the six to seven miles disrupted by the construction.

The Port Authority has also been handling some 550 homeowner complaints and concerns, he said. To date 98 percent of those complaints have been settled either through damage payments or discussions, he said.

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com, or by phone at 229-0300, Ext. 138.

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