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A one-seat ride to Kennedy Airport?

Transportation history has a habit of repeating itself, and will probably do so again with this latest round of proposals.
Planes sit on the runway at John F. Kennedy International Airport on June 5, 2017, in New York City. Photo: Getty Images

Gov. Andrew Cuomo in his 2017 State of the State speech joined former MTA Chairman Tom Pendergast and the Regional Plan Association in calling for a one seat ride on public transportation for those traveling to and from Kennedy Airport. This idea is nothing new and has been periodically studied before going back to the 1960's by various other agencies including the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Office of Planning, Long Island Rail Road, NYCDOT, NYC Department of Planning Transportation Division, NYC Economic Development Corporation and New York Metropolitan Transportation Council. They all died due to priority given other competing projects for funding, lack of local consensus among elected officials, various transportation operating agencies along with potential city, state and federal funding agencies. No one can spare several billion dollars to make this happen.  

In 1999, the Regional Plan Association proposed a new subway service route. It would have operated from Manhattan on to Brooklyn via the Montahue Street Tunnel (currently used by the R line) and on to Jamaica via the LIRR Atlantic Branch (Flatbush Avenue Brooklyn to Jamaica which would have to be converted to subway usage ending commuter rail) and on to Kennedy Airport via the Air Train. This idea was never supported by most elected officials or the MTA.

Former Gov. George Pataki was also big advocate for a one seat ride from the World Trade Center to Kennedy airport promoting some of the same concepts as RPA back in the 1990's. In 2004, the MTA. Port Authority of NY & NJ, Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and New York City Economic Development Corporation at the request of Governor Pataki completed a study which looked at several of the same 5 options proposed by RPA in 2017. These ideas were also never really supported by most elected officials or the MTA.

Transportation history has a habit of repeating itself, and will probably do so again with this latest round of RPA proposals. Each generation of elected officials, transportation planners and transportation agencies frequently recycles the same old concepts which never see the light of day.

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It is a safe bet that there never has been and or will be a real one seat ride. Creating a one-seat ride from Penn Station to JFK by extending either the LIRR using Air Train tracks or extending the Air Train using LIRR tracks will not work. LIRR & Air Train equipment are not compatible. The only exception is one stop express shuttle bus services from either Grand Central Terminal, Penn Station or World Trade Center directly to Kennedy Airport. These existing services could be expanded with additional operating and capital subsidies to the current private bus operator. Most travelers who want to reach Kennedy Airport via public transportation will always have to transfer from either the Long Island Rail Road, subway or bus to the Air Train at Jamaica or subway to the Air Train at Howard Beach. The best course of action is to make this transfer as easy as possible. Increasing the frequency of Air Train service would help. Lengthening each Air Train from 2 to either 3 or 4 cars might make it more attractive. Building the existing Air Train north via the Van Wyck Expressway to LaGuardia Airport which was the original concept decades ago with one intermediate stop at Shea Stadium #7 subway & Port Washington branch LIRR station(s) might be a better investment than any of the recent new Regional Plan Association proposals.  

Everyone missed the most obvious option which exists today. Kennedy Airport travelers in the know including many from other states and nations transfer from the A train at Howard Beach to the Air Train. The A train provides excellent connections to downtown Brooklyn, Wall Street, Penn Station and Port Authority 42nd Street bus terminal. (You can transfer at the Fulton Street downtown Manhattan subway station to the Lexington Avenue subway for direct access to Grand Central Terminal, West 4th Street to the various subway lines running up 6th Avenue including the F line to 63rd Street with a direct across the platform connection to the Q 2nd Avenue uptown east side Manhattan line or 42nd St. - 8th Avenue via #7 Flushing line 2 stops to Grand Central Terminal). 

Many are too young to remember that up until the 1970's – NYC Transit extended E line service which ran express in Brooklyn providing supplemental service to the A line during rush hours to the Rockaways.  This included a stop at Howard Beach prior to construction of the Air Train. Why not bring back this service? There is existing subway capacity and equipment to increase the frequency of service on the A line off peak, evenings, overnight and on weekends. This might make it more attractive to both existing subway riders and Kennedy Airport customers. Rockaway riders would benefit by shorter waits between trains.

The lower level of the Eighth Avenue – 42nd Street Station in midtown Manhattan was once used in the 1960s for service directly to Aqueduct Race Track known as the Aqueduct Special. It could once again be used to provide additional service to Kennedy Airport

Larry Penner is a transportation historian and advocate who previously worked 31 years for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

 
 
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