The Plan to Fix JFK Focuses on the Wrong Thing

We’ve heard a lot about the billions of dollars being sunk into New York’s LaGuardia Airport, but what about JFK? Oh don’t worry, there are plans to spend billions there as well. Gov. Andrew Cuomo laid out what he calls a “vision plan” for the future of JFK. (Translation: none of it will actually happen as proposed.) While there are some good ideas in there, the two most important pieces to improve JFK, a train to Manhattan and a new runway, are either marginalized or ignored completely.

Let’s start with a look at JFK today.

JFK Today

Looking at that map, you’re probably wondering what drunk person designed the place. And the reality is, nobody did. I mean, the terminals at JFK have been developed and redeveloped independently. There is no coherent plan, and that’s what this new proposal is supposed to address.

Here’s the ridiculous pie-in-the-sky vision that will cost about $10 billion, and I assume that’s a very conservative number.

JFK Proposal That Will Never Happen

On this map, east is straight ahead. JetBlue’s Terminal 5 is at the far end. On the right is Terminal 4 in the distance (the home of Delta and a bunch of international carriers). Up close on the right appears to be a new terminal that sits on the ashes of today’s Terminals 1 (Air France, JAL, Korean, Lufthansa, and many others) and 2 (Delta – along with the ghosts of now-demolished Terminal 3). On the left, it looks like Terminal 7 (British Airways) is gone in favor of something new. And even the very new Terminal 8 (American and friends) seems to have been completely redesigned. This is a massively ambitious plan that’s never going to see the light of day.

The other thing you might notice is that the spaghetti roadways that exist today are cleaned up and replaced with a far simpler design. That’ll help with road traffic indeed, and there’s more. This plan will rework some of the bottlenecks on the roads leaving JFK. That’s nice, but it’s also somewhat short-sighted.

The report says that JFK will grow by a third in total passengers by 2030, reaching 75 million a year. These people might go through fancy terminals, but are they all really going to drive? And, um, how is the airport going to actually get all those people into the air on time?

By 2030, presumably self-driving cars will be reality to some extent, making roadways automatically more efficient. But more importantly, public transit will only gain in stature. While billions will go into roadway development, this report only gives a nod to any meaningful transit changes.

Today, the best public transit options require taking the inter-terminal AirTrain out to one of two stops where you can then transfer either to the subway or to the Long Island Railroad. It’s somewhat clumsy and not sufficient.

This report proposes simply adding capacity to the AirTrain and making the connection easier. That’s weak. A real solution would involve having a train that goes straight from JFK into Manhattan. What about that?

The MTA and the Port Authority should also conduct a comprehensive analysis to evaluate the possibility of a one-seat ride to JFK Airport from Penn Station New York, Grand Central Terminal, and/
or Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue/Barclays Station.

Yeah, a “comprehensive analysis,” huh? And one run by two notoriously slow public agencies? That sounds likely to result in… well, nothing.

Back on the airport, those 75 million travelers will have fancy-looking terminals and all that, but how many of their flights will be on time? The report talks about optimizing taxiway configuration, but JFK can’t run well today when the weather gets ugly. You think simply doing some taxiway work is going to make it run well with 75 million passengers?

No, what this airport needs is more runway. Building a runway anywhere in the US is a near-impossible task, but if JFK plans on generating $10 billion of spending, it would be better off sinking a big chunk of that into giving airplanes more takeoff and landing capacity.

In the end, this is probably a political stunt more than anything. We’ve seen how many times plans were made and discarded at LaGuardia. If anything happens at JFK, it probably won’t look anything like this. I can only hope that in version 2 (and 3 and 4…) there will be more attention paid to the two things that really matter: runways and public transit.

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