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After 50 Years In The Making, AirTrain Opens With Fanfare.

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December 19, 2003- After 50 Years In The Making, AirTrain Opens With Fanfare

by Daniel Hendrick, Asst. Managing Editor December 18, 2003

Governor Pataki (l.) and Mayor Bloomberg (r.) show their enthusiasm after stepping off the AirTrain into the new Jamaica terminal. (photo by Anthony Correia)

Exactly a century after the Wright Brothers made the first powered flight, the long-anticipated light-rail link to Kennedy Airport began service on Wednesday.

Governor George Pataki, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and dozens of city and Port Authority executives took the inaugural ride from Kennedy’s Terminal Four to the gleaming new AirTrain terminal in Jamaica.

After alighting, the officials heralded the $1.9-billion project as a momentous step for Queens and for New York City as a whole, which now joins other world-class cities in having a train-to-the-plane link.

“We promised to get a rail connection to JFK built after nearly half a century,” Pataki said. “And today, on the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first flight, we say ‘Promise made, promise kept.’”

A steady downpour did not delay the sleek, silver train from arriving at the Jamaica terminal eight minutes after departing the airport. The glass doors slid open once the train silently slipped into the loading dock, and as the first passengers stepped into the shiny new terminal, they couldn’t hide their exuberance.

“It was fast, it was smooth, it was 21st Century. It was just a fantastic thing,” said Congressman Gregory Meeks (D-St. Albans).

Wednesday’s opening symbolized a lot more than just the latest technological marvel. It marked the completion of the largest public works project that Queens has seen in decades, the fruit of 50 years of studying and heated debates that date back to Robert Moses.

It took five and a half years to build the 8.1-mile link, which runs in a loop between Kennedy Airport’s nine terminals before branching off toward Howard Beach or beginning the 3.1-mile trek to Jamaica.

The project was funded mostly by the $2.50 per-ticket charged on passengers traveling through Kennedy Airport. Around 30 percent, or $600 million, of the project came from Port Authority capital funds.

Nearly 4,000 people worked on the AirTrain’s construction and testing, and one, Kelvin DeBourgh Jr., lost his life.

Charles Gargano, the Port Authority’s vice chairman, tempered the high spirits at the ceremony by offering “sincere condolences to the friends, family and co-workers” of the late Jamaica resident, who was killed during a test run last year.

More than 30,000 people a day are expected to use the AirTrain system in the beginning, making it the second-most heavily used airport access system in the nation.

The trains will operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, running every two minutes during peak periods and every 6 to 12 minutes at other times. Each of the 32 automated, driverless cars can hold up to 100 passengers and reach a top speed of 62 miles per hour. The complete trip around the terminal area takes 8 minutes, as does the trip from Terminal One to Howard Beach.

The ride is free between all airport stops, and will cost $5 between the airport and the Howard Beach and Jamaica stations. A 30-day unlimited pass costs $40. The Port Authority is also allowing passengers to ride for free all day Thursday, December 18th.

Noting that most of New York City’s 35 million annual visitors arrive by air, Mayor Bloomberg said the opening heralds a “new era” for the local tourism and aviation industry. “If we are going to have a world-class city, this really is one of the things you have to have. Companies will locate here if they have good transportation.”

Congressman Meeks echoed the mayor’s sentiments, saying that the light-rail link will also have a direct benefit in Jamaica. A hotel and several office buildings are planned for the blocks surrounding the AirTrain terminal to capitalize on the airport’s newfound proximity.

“This has unified the gateway to America to New York. And what better way, than through beautiful downtown Jamaica, New York,” he added, to rousing applause.

For all the glad-handing and smiles on Wednesday, the project still is not entirely complete. Between now and 2005, crews will continue to integrate the futuristic Jamaica AirTrain terminal with the 1950s-era Long Island Rail Road station and subway stops.

Yet in another sense, the AirTrain’s story is just beginning. The state recently commissioned a study to examine extending the AirTrain from Jamaica to midtown and even lower Manhattan. “We did this, we are going to do that too,” Pataki pledged.

Transportation advocates like Gene Russianoff, of the Straphangers’ Campaign, said they look forward to that day as well. “The holy grail is the one-seat ride,” he said. “But you’ve got a pretty damn good station here right now.”



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