Stewart airport's future clouded without rail link

File photo of Stewart International Airport in New File photo of Stewart International Airport in New Windsor. (Jan. 17, 2007) Photo Credit: AP

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With plans for a Metro-North rail link shelved, coming off a year when it saw air traffic decline by nearly 50,000 passengers, Stewart International Airport in Newburgh is facing an uncertain future.

A proposal to extend Metro-North's Port Jervis Line to the former Air Force base did not pass muster in a study sponsored by the MTA, NJ Transit, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The West of Hudson Regional Transit Access study -- published last year -- predicted that such a rail link would add only 1,100 air passengers per day, or 550 coming and going.

The rail link would come with a price tag between $600 million and $850 million, the study said.

In place of a rail link, the study suggested ways to improve bus service to the airport. A decision on the best option is expected by the end of the year, after input from local communities.

Bus-oriented solutions under consideration include improving express bus service from the Port Authority's two terminals in Manhattan, in midtown and in Washington Heights. The study recommends continuing shuttle bus service from Metro-North's station in Beacon, on the Hudson Line.

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LACK OF A RAIL LINK REDUCES APPEAL

When the Port Authority bought Stewart from the state of New York in 2007, it hoped development of the 2,200-acre airport would relieve congestion at its other airports -- LaGuardia, Kennedy and Newark Liberty. The absence of a rail link will make it difficult for Stewart to attract customers from the metropolitan core, transportation experts say.

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"Without a rail link the trip time from the core to Stewart will be even less attractive, but even with the link, the demand doesn't justify that magnitude of investment," said Richard Barone, the director of transportation programs for the Regional Plan Association, which has studied access to the region's airports.

Last year, Stewart was the only one of the Port Authority's airports to experience a dip in passengers, dropping from 413,654 in 2011 to 364,848 in 2012. Port Authority officials peg the 12 percent decrease to a 30,000-passenger decrease at JetBlue alone. One factor there was the carrier's decision to use smaller planes at Stewart -- a 100-seater in place of a 158-seater, Port Authority officials say.

But aviation consultant Michael Boyd, of Evergreen, Colo., said Stewart's troubles go deeper than that, and have more to do with the airport's location 66 miles north of Manhattan.

"It's not an airport that can act as a reliever for New York," Boyd said. "It's just not in a good place. It's just too far. Maybe for Poughkeepsie it's OK."

The rail link idea, while it looked good on paper, was ill-conceived, he said.

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"Any idea how much it costs to build a rail link?" Boyd said. "I guess they found out."

In the meantime, the Port Authority is moving ahead with plans to upgrade its passenger terminal at Stewart, at a cost of $20 million, and is contemplating a $143.5 million rehabilitation of two runways.

Port Authority officials say current passenger totals at Stewart make it difficult to support a costly rail link to the airport. At this point, they're backing a bus option. "If things pick up out there we would revisit it," said the official, who declined to be identified.

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