Long Island MacArthur Airport has always been the stuff dreams are made of. Big dreams, with reality usually coming up short.
It’s never become the economic engine it was touted to be, nor the transportation hub some imagined. It’s had good stretches, like its recent spurt under Islip Town Supervisor Angie Carpenter, but past progress inevitably became regress, and its potential stayed grounded.
We’re still thinking big. And every official involved in the airport’s future should think big, too. Especially now, when important decisions are about to be made that will shape that future, and when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is ready to make a downpayment.
Cuomo wants to commit $20 million toward a new terminal at MacArthur “to provide direct service” to the Long Island Rail Road. The best spot is on the airport’s north side, across the tracks from Ronkonkoma station. Not on its current south-side site, where the train-to-plane connection is a bus ride around the airport’s perimeter. Transit advocates and many airport supporters agree.
Some local officials say Cuomo’s money should be spent on a rapid-bus system that would use interior airport roads for a faster connection to the existing facility expanded and modernized by Southwest Airlines in an $82 million project more than a decade ago. The $20 million would be more than enough, and a rapid-bus system could get done more easily and quickly than a new terminal, whose price tag could be around $125 million.
But Islip, which owns and operates the airport, also is studying where to put its soon-to-be-built customs facility to enable international travel — within the existing terminal, a standalone structure adjacent to it, or on the north side near the railroad. The existing terminal would be the cheapest, fastest, most practical solution. But not the best one.
When you’re chasing something big, you don’t settle. It’s time for MacArthur to go all-in on trying to move north.
Take Cuomo’s $20 million and add the $12 million raised for the customs facility. Seek a public-private partnership with an airline, as is being done for renovations at LaGuardia and JFK, to fund the new terminal. The timing is good.
The Ronkonkoma Hub housing-retail project starting soon will revitalize the area at the train station. The second track being built between Ronkonkoma and Farmingdale will offer quicker service intra-Island and from New York City, offering Long Islanders and city residents a real alternative to JFK and LaGuardia airports. Being able to hook into the Hub’s new sewer line would significantly reduce costs for main tenant Southwest and any new airline.
It’s a gamble. We get that. There are no guarantees. But small steps rarely lead to big payoffs. Waiting to see whether a rapid-bus connection attracts more passengers to lure more airlines to warrant a new terminal would be a modest step that pushes MacArthur’s future further down the runway. Sometimes you have to build it to get them to come.
Long Islanders have been waiting for years for MacArthur to take off. We can wait a little longer if it means getting it right. There’s an opportunity here. It’s time to get on board. — The editorial board