The Port Authority should consider temporarily making the AirTrain, seen...

The Port Authority should consider temporarily making the AirTrain, seen at Kennedy Airport, free during construction. Credit: Corey Sipkin

Air travelers enjoying the upgraded LaGuardia Airport might have forgotten the difficulties they endured through the rebuilding. The lengthy construction, closed roadways, and images of people dragging suitcases along highways and across overpasses were a nightmare. But the new LaGuardia was worth that pain.

Kennedy Airport’s makeover will also be worthwhile. Massive construction now underway, estimated to cost $19 billion, will result in four new or upgraded terminals and extensive improvements to airport roadways. But as at LaGuardia, that progress won’t be painless, especially when it comes to getting to and around the airport property. The airport’s operator must consider new incentives to get travelers out of their cars.

Construction will reach its peak this summer just as airplane travel is soaring. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs Kennedy Airport, predicts record numbers of passengers at the international hub during the height of the season.

That’s going to mean tough times for air travelers, especially those who drive to the airport or arrive via car service. Port Authority officials note that significant congestion will occur along roadways directly in front of the terminals, and could extend to the roadways throughout the grounds of Kennedy and beyond, with work also occurring on the JFK Expressway access road. Parking, too, will be a challenge, as spaces will be significantly reduced.

Alleviating the pain and improving the travel experience starts with encouraging airport passengers to take public transit. The AirTrain from Jamaica Station is an enormous advantage for Kennedy, one officials and travelers should utilize widely. The Port Authority plans to add trains and provide public messaging to encourage passengers to take the AirTrain. That’s key.

To spur a change in behavior, the Port Authority should consider temporarily making the AirTrain free, especially during peak travel hours. There are valid concerns about doing that. Will people who are homeless gravitate to a free AirTrain? With imaginative thinking — perhaps in limiting free fares to ticketed passengers — there are ways to make it work.

Those who insist on driving can do their part to alleviate potential traffic nightmares. The Port Authority plans to utilize the Lefferts Boulevard parking lot as a free pickup, drop-off and waiting lot. Passengers could take the AirTrain from there, a portion of the ride that’s already free. That’s wise if widely used. Educating the public will again be important.

Still, some travelers no doubt will try to make their way to the terminals by car. Port Authority airport officials must stay nimble to quickly add personnel to direct cars or change patterns where possible as traffic builds.

Good changes at Kennedy are coming. In the short-term, it won’t be pleasant. Be prepared, make wise choices, and have patience. And remember that a new and better airport is on the horizon.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.

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