December 17, 2003-
To some, the opening of the AirTrain this week marks a long-overdue triumph for mass transit, akin to putting the last missing piece into New York City’s complex transportation puzzle.
But that triumph has come at a price—a fact that is well appreciated in the neighborhoods of South Jamaica, South Ozone Park and Howard Beach.
A total of 533 property damage claims have been submitted to the Port Authority as a result of the AirTrain’s construction, according to spokesman Pasquale DiFulco.
Nearly all of the claims were from property owners within a four-block radius of the Van Wyck Expressway, where the train’s Jamaica link runs, and from a two-block radius near the new Howard Beach station, at Coleman Square.
DiFulco wouldn’t say how much the claims cost the Port Authority and passengers at Kennedy Airport (who are charged a few dollars on every ticket to pay for the AirTrain), and he was unable to give a sense of the largest individual claims.
“In general, they are for the kinds of things you would expect, like foundations and cracks on the walls,” DiFulco said.
For some residents, like Waco Oglesby, the damage was relatively light. Although his home is directly on the 128th block of the Van Wyck service road, cracked walls were the only negative consequence. He filed a claim with the Port Authority and a check arrived within three months.
“I heard about one house where the chimney fell down, but it wasn’t that bad for me,” Oglesby said. “When they were driving those piles, the vibration went right through the house. Even now when the trains go by, you can feel it.”
Pile driving caused considerably more damage at the 134th Street home of Marcie White, where walls on the first and second floors were cracked and a window broken. The vibrations “shook you in bed,” she recalled, to the point that they knocked a cherished charcoal painting off a wall.
A contractor estimated the damage to White’s home at $20,000, and the Port Authority came back with an offer of $1,300. She has not accepted the claim and is still weighing her options.
The AirTrain has also prompted a change that can’t be measured in dollars and cents. “A lot of people moved, all of my friends moved away, and I think they moved because of the AirTrain. We are right off the Van Wyck and we get a lot of noise,” White said.
According to DiFulco, the Port Authority has paid 98 percent of the property damage claims, leaving only eight open. Two lawsuits are still pending.
Yet some homeowners like Elijah Moore fear that the long-term damage from the AirTrain is only starting to appear now, months after construction was completed.
A retired Jamaica Bus Lines mechanic, Moore accepted a $1,600 check to repair cracks at his two-story house on the 133rd block of the Van Wyck service road. Pile-driving for the AirTrain loosened the mortar in the exterior walls and even knocked off sections of the red bricks.
But in recent months, more fissures have appeared. One crack on the southern side of his house extends downward toward the foundation, while a second, in the wall of his backyard garage, starts at the ceiling and snakes 10 feet to the ground. Noise from passing cars and trucks has also increased, because the concrete AirTrain structure deflects sound toward his home.
“When I am outside cutting the grass, I started to see more cracks. I believe it was slow in coming forth, because you can’t tell right away,” Moore said. “I may have to reinstate my claim.”
Residents can do little but make their peace with the AirTrain, now that it is in full operation, and even staunch critics admit the AirTrain will help reduce traffic on the Van Wyck Expressway.
But a sense of resentment still lingers. Ruth Bryan, president of the Southeast Queens Concerned Neighbors, noted that one local resident, Kelvin DeBourgh, died during AirTrain testing last year.
And while her neighborhood bore the greatest burden for the light rail link, it will not benefit directly. There is no stop on the train’s Jamaica line between the airport and downtown Jamaica.
“I heard that I was invited,” Bryan said of Wednesday’s official ribbon cutting. “But I told them ‘Don’t even bother.’”