New capital plan won't replace outdated Newark AirTrain

Markets Associated Press

As the New York region's largest transportation agency prepares to embark on a 10-year, $30 billion infrastructure spending plan amid accusations of political skullduggery, one of its aging — and potentially unsafe — assets apparently has been pushed to the back burner.

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The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey's just-released preliminary 10-year capital plan contains $300 million for repairs and maintenance to Newark Liberty International Airport's oft-delayed AirTrain, which agency officials have said will be obsolete by 2022 and should be replaced.

Meanwhile, the Port Authority has included in its spending plan $1.7 billion to extend rail service on its PATH trains from lower Manhattan to connect to the Newark AirTrain, and roughly $1.5 billion for a new rail service to New York's LaGuardia Airport.

A Port Authority spokesman said the proposed $300 million for Newark's AirTrain will be for repairs, but didn't give specifics.

The AirTrain cost $769 million to build and opened in 1996 to connect the airport's three terminals to one another and to short- and long-term parking lots. A link to Amtrak and New Jersey Transit's Northeast Corridor rail lines opened in 2001.

"Think about the absurdity of prioritizing a PATH extension to the airport but leaving the connection to the Northeast Corridor to potentially fail," said New Jersey Assemblyman John Wisniewski, chair of a legislative transportation committee. "By trying to appease all interests they spread a lot of money around on a lot of projects, none of which are funded to the level they require and still leave other projects, such as this, unfunded."

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Newark's airport handled about 37 million passengers in 2015. More than 2 million people use the AirTrain annually, according to the Port Authority.

AirTrain delays are commonplace and sometimes occur at the most inopportune times. Two weeks ago, on Dec. 23, the train shut down for two hours, delaying thousands of holiday travelers. It had to be taken offline for repairs for two months in summer 2014, forcing travelers to take shuttle buses.

A Port Authority resolution in April 2015 to put $40 million toward design and planning for a new AirTrain said the system "currently experiences crowding issues, because demand exceeds capacity during peak periods, and weather-induced delays. Although substantial investment has been made to maintain current operations, such investment has not extended the 25-year design life of the system, nor has it expanded capacity."

The contract with Bombardier, the global manufacturer that built the AirTrain, expires in 2022, officials said at the time.

The bistate Port Authority has come under fire on both sides of the Hudson River recently over its process for funding numerous large-scale infrastructure projects, particularly a new bus terminal in midtown New York City.

Critics have charged the agency has approved unnecessary projects to appease politicians in both states, while the bus terminal project remains underfunded.

Board member Kenneth Lipper, an appointee of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, went so far as to propose an amendment at Thursday's board meeting to remove the LaGuardia and PATH-to-Newark rail projects from the preliminary 10-year plan, saying they would serve small numbers of people.

The proposal was voted down.

Stephen Sigmund, executive director of the Global Gateway Alliance, an advocacy group for New York-area airports, said the capital planning process invariably contains trade-offs.

"It's a basic question and challenge, that you have all this aging infrastructure and you can't fix all of it at once and add all the things you want to add," he said. "For us it was very important that the PATH to Newark go forward and there be better transit access to the airport in general."