Gotham Gazette

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The (Proposed) Trains To The Planes

New York City is one of the few premier international cities without direct rail access to its airports. Mayor Bloomberg wants to fix that. A centerpiece of the mayor's vision for the revival of Lower Manhattan is to build rail connections between Lower Manhattan and John F. Kennedy and Newark Liberty International airports. Bloomberg believes that direct rail access is pivotal to making downtown Manhattan a global center that can compete with the likes of London, Berlin and Hong Kong.

Under Bloomberg's "Vision for Lower Manhattan" the AirTrain elevated guideway system, currently under construction by the Port Authority, would be extended from Jamaica, Queens through a new tunnel to Lower Manhattan. Under current plans, AirTrain will connect JFK terminals with each other, airport parking lots, the Howard Beach subway station and subway and Long Island Rail Road train lines in Jamaica, Queens. AirTrain's opening, scheduled for this year, has been delayed by an accident last summer that killed one worker. Extending AirTrain from Jamaica to lower Manhattan would provide air travelers with a one-seat ride (i.e., no need to transfer) from the airport to downtown, and would also connect Lower Manhattan to LIRR trains in Jamaica.

Bloomberg also proposes to extend the PATH train from Newark's Penn Station to Newark Liberty airport. This extension would provide direct rail service from Newark to a new PATH station at the World Trade Center site as well as PATH stations as far uptown as 33 Street.

Bloomberg estimates that the AirTrain extension would cost $3.7 billion and take nine years to complete. The Newark PATH extension would cost $775 million and presumably could be built more quickly than the AirTrain tunnel.

Bloomberg says that a one-seat ride between JFK and Lower Manhattan "is key to our success." The concept of a one-seat ride is attractive for many reasons. It offers faster and more reliable travel times by eliminating transfers between trains. It also offers greater convenience, especially for air travelers lugging bags. The simplicity of direct rail service also contributes to the image of a city as an easy place to visit and do business.

On the other hand, spending nearly $4 billion for a one-seat ride from JFK to Lower Manhattan offers few benefits to the much larger number of travelers originating in or bound for other parts of New York City. Air travelers using JFK come from locations throughout the metropolitan area. Although it requires the transfer in Jamaica or Howard Beach, AirTrain will let travelers reach JFK by rail from throughout the city via the subway connections and from throughout the LIRR service territory via the Jamaica LIRR connection.

In his Lower Manhattan speech, Bloomberg cited Heathrow airport's 30 minute transit access to Paddington Station in London's West End, alluding to the high-speed Heathrow Express service. What he did not point out, however, is that ridership is higher on the Piccadilly Underground line from Heathrow than on the faster Heathrow Express service, according to the 2000 Transit Cooperative Research Report, Improving Public Transportation Access to Large Airports. The Piccadilly line is slower but it serves a larger geographic area. It is also cheaper,another advantage that is particularly important to airport employees, who far outnumber air travelers at major airports such as JFK.

In comparing New York with other international cities, the mayor also raises the question of whether as many travelers can be attracted to public transportation at American airports as at airports in Europe and Asia. Rail serves 25 percent of air travelers using Heathrow Airport in London, 35 percent of travelers at Tokyo's Narita Airport, 25 percent in Hong Kong and 20 percent in Paris (DeGaulle). A substantial additional fraction of travelers take buses to the airport, ­ 15 percent in the case of Heathrow.

American cities with direct rail access have attracted much lower levels of transit ridership. The best case is Reagan National airport outside Washington, DC, where 15 percent of air travelers use the excellent Washington Metro trains. Virtually all of these travelers are domestic travelers, many of them traveling on business and going to offices or hotels close to a Metro station. The walk from the terminal to Metro is very short, Metro service is frequent and the fare is relatively cheap.

Rail's share of airport travel is much lower in other U.S. cities. Direct subway service between downtown business districts and the airport draws 12 percent of air travelers for Boston's Logan airport, eight percent for Atlanta's Hartsfield airport, eight percent for Chicago's Midway airport and four percent for O'Hare.

According to an update (in pdf format) to the Improving Public Transportation Access to Large Airports report, about four percent of air travelers from JFK use the bus to A train connection. International leisure travelers are most likely to use the A train and are easily spotted with backpacks by anyone who has traveled through Howard Beach. Despite this low ridership level, the A train carries a substantial and growing JFK ridership. About 900,000 people used the Howard Beach station entrance that connects to shuttle buses in 2001, a 125 percent increase from a decade earlier. Many of these riders are airport employees.

In many ways more promising than the expensive JFK direct rail link is the mayor's proposal to connect PATH to Newark airport. It is not clear from the mayor's speech whether he has in mind connecting PATH to Newark's AirTrain system or extending PATH trains directly to airport terminals. The Port Authority has been looking at the first option, however, which seems the more likely option although here again, it would require travelers to make a transfer between AirTrain and PATH.

Will New Yorkers ever enjoy truly direct rail access from Manhattan to any of the region's three major airports? The coming of AirTrain at JFK and possible extension of PATH to connect with the Newark airport's AirTrain would offer two-seat rail access to travelers who originate or are destined for many locations throughout the metro area. A one-seat ride is a more distant goal. But it may not be a bad thing that it is distant. The two-seat rides take advantage of the region's extensive rail infrastructure which offers access to numerous destinations with frequent and reasonably reliable service. It is not hard to argue that a two-seat ride to where you want to go is better than a one-seat ride to select locations, such as Lower Manhattan, that will serve only a thin slice of the flying public.

Bruce Schaller is Principal of Schaller Consulting, which provides research and analysis to government, business and non-profit groups seeking to identify and meet customer needs in the transportation sector. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University.

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