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Can $51 Billion Upgrade to Region’s Airports Get off the Ground?

The Regional Plan Association wants to revamp Newark, Kennedy, and LaGuardia to stay ahead of expected growth — and pull plug on Teterboro to stay clear of rising sea level

newark airport artist rendering
Credit: Regional Planning Association
Artist's rendering of rehabilitated Newark Airport

Continuing growth and demand, as well as environmental changes, are driving the need for $51 billion in upgrades to the region’s airports, including a completely revamped Newark Airport with an additional runway and the closure of Teterboro Airport, a new study urges.

A Regional Plan Association report on air travel and facilities stresses the need for expanded, better-connected and climate-change-adapted airports to increase capacity and support continued growth in the region. It suggests that its proposed overhaul of Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s terminals and runways would reduce flight delays by a third while providing for a 60-percent increase in air passenger volume.

Entitled “Upgrading to World Class – The Future of the Region’s Airports Revisited,” RPA’s ambitious plan updates recommendations it made in 2011 and is part of its Fourth Regional Master Plan. Since then, ridership has grown nearly twice as quickly as predicted, and though some of the technological improvements that the report called for have been implemented, no actions have been taken to add new runway capacity at any of the region’s largest airports.

RPA is a research and advocacy organization, so its proposal is a recommendation only. In a statement, Port Authority officials said they “welcome the RPA’s valued input to this critical issue, and we look forward to reviewing their recommendations in more detail.”

Expect delays — inevitably

The need for an overhaul is well-known. Newark, JFK, and LaGuardia airports consistently rank among the top 10 airports across the country for flight delays. According to federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics data, fewer than seven in 10 flights arrived on time at Newark Liberty International Airport in April, the most recent month for which statistics were available, and less than 75 percent of flights took off on time. Combined, the three Port Authority airports accommodated about 133 million travelers last year, which is about a 25 percent increase since 2009, according to the RPA.

“All three of our major airports suffer from some of the worst delays in the nation,” and that also applies to ground traffic, said Tom Wright, president of the Regional Plan Association. “We need to invest to build a modern airport system for our growing region. This includes expanding runway capacity, providing transit connections, and continuing to improve the customer experience.”

Fixing the problem of delays is critical to the economic wellbeing of New York City and the region, the plan contends.

“They (the airports) make a first and lasting impression on business and leisure travelers, deliver time-sensitive cargo, and make it possible for the New York region to maintain its leadership in finance, media, tourism, and other industries,” the report states. “In short, without its airports, New York would be unable to maintain its status as a global city.”

Baraka: airport critical to Newark’s prosperity

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, who hosted a press conference to unveil the plan with RPA officials on Monday, said Newark Airport has been critical to the success of New Jersey’s largest city and improving the airport would go a long way toward increased prosperity in the city.

"Newark International Airport is already a major driver of Newark's exponential growth in economic development and jobs,” Baraka said. “The airport's success has created the need for a serious makeover to make it more convenient, user-friendly, and accessible. The Regional Plan Association’s proposals for better transit connections, increased capacity, and preparations for climate change reinforce the City of Newark's efforts to create an airport second to none.”

For Newark Airport, which opened 90 years ago and covers more than 2,000 acres of land straddling the cities of Newark and Elizabeth and serves more than 43 million passengers a year, the plan calls for a 40-year, $28 billion overhaul that “would transform EWR into the region’s premier intermodal facility.” It would include new terminals and concourse, a new runway, new rail connections with a new station, and new ground transportation, as well as an expansion to accommodate more cargo services.

“The vision for EWR (Newark Airport) is transformative and will take several decades to be fully realized,” the plan states. “In the past, planners have proposed bringing transit directly onto the airport. RPA’s vision for EWR would instead bring the airport to transit by constructing a new main terminal headhouse — the primary interface between the landside and airside with ground transportation services, check-in counters, passenger security screening, and baggage claim — directly on the Northeast Corridor.”

The Port Authority already is in the midst of a redevelopment project at Newark Airport, spending an estimated $2.7 billion on a new Terminal One to replace the current Terminal A, which the authority calls “obsolete.”

Rising tide at Teterboro Airport

Part of the RPA’s recommended expansion and upgrade at Newark would be needed to handle additional traffic expected from the recommended closure of Teterboro Airport.

Click to expand/close

All of the Port Authority airports will be affected to some degree by an anticipated rise in sea levels over the next several decades, but the biggest problem would be at Teterboro, a major business jetport with two runways on 827 acres. The report said Teterboro “would be partly flooded at one foot and could be fully inundated with three feet of sea level rise.”

Another problem at the airport is that it serves many private aircraft that need longer runways for take-offs.

“The cost of maintaining Teterboro, both financially and environmentally, will be increasingly hard to justify with rising sea levels, and should eventually result in closing the airport,” the report states. “Over the next 20 to 30 years the airport will slowly start to lose its battle with sea-level rise and will need to be replaced.”

No single nearby facility can absorb Teterboro’s 167,000 annual aircraft operations, according to the report. Some smaller airfields, including Morristown, can handle some of the flights but “many of the larger private business jets will search for closer-in airfields with better access to New York City,” with both Newark and LaGuardia likely choices.

Because rising sea levels are also expected to impact Newark and LaGuardia, the report states that “in the longer term, interventions will be needed to protect” both of them, as well as the nearby seaports and I-95. While not specifically tackling the issue in this report, the RPA cautions the Port Authority not to disregard impending climate change; “It would be catastrophic to the region’s economy, its residents and businesses if our airport’s vulnerability to sea-level rise and storm-surge events is ignored or if the planning necessary to protect them in the long term is not high on the agenda.”

The $51 billion overhaul

In total, the RPA is recommending a $50.8 billion investment at the airports over the next 30-to-40 years. That works out to $1.5 billion a year, which is about $500 million more annually than the approximately $1 billion the Port Authority is investing now in the airports. To cover the cost, the RPA suggests increasing the $9.00 Passenger Facility Charge that all travelers currently pay per flight and has not been increased since 2003. The association also recommends the Port Authority could “reinvest more of their revenue that now cross subsidizes other Port Authority operations.”

Most of the work at the New York airports is suggested for JFK, where the plan calls for adding two new runways, consolidating the central terminal, and improving public transportation. At LaGuardia, undergoing an $8 billion redevelopment, it recommends a new public transit connector and monitoring and planning for rising sea levels.

In its statement on the plan, the Port Authority noted that it is currently making significant investments in all three of the airports.

“Investing in the region’s airports to create the world-class facilities that travelers deserve is one of the Port Authority’s top priorities, which is why we’ve dedicated more than a third of our $32 billion capital plan to rebuilding them and sparking billions more in private investment,” according to the statement. “This will represent the first time that all three of the region’s airports are undergoing such significant transformations.”

The RPA’s plan calls for almost that much to be spent just at Newark. Its specific plans for Newark Airport, in chronological order, are:

  • Complete the current terminal construction, which would operate as the rest of the airport is rebuilt.

  • Provide an interim replacement for AirTrain, which takes people to and from the airport, as well as around it. The current system is expected to last no more than another decade.

  • Build a new terminal headhouse directly on the Northeast Corridor train line to include all airport ground access, security, and baggage handling. It would include short-term parking garages and a bus facility, as well as a new rail station with 10 tracks and five platforms for an extension of the PATH trains. Those would eventually also extend to Elizabeth, and other rail services. Secure people movers would connect the terminal to the concourse. The proposed PATH extension — and the $1.7 billion in funds needed to complete it — were included in the 10-year, $32 billion capital plan that was approved by the Port Authority’s commissioners at the beginning of 2017. The current plans call for construction on the proposed extension to begin in 2020, and for the project to be completed by 2026.

  • Over three decades, demolish the terminals, roadway system, and parking lots and replace them with three new midfield concourses with gates; relocate the air-traffic control tower and onsite hotel.

  • Extend the airport south into a 600-acre industrial/commercial facility to create a new cargo area to better handle FedEx, UPS, and other carriers.

  • Build a fourth western runway next to Route 9 by 2050.

  • Pursue development opportunities on underused land to the west and east of the Northeast Corridor. Suggested uses include commercial and airport logistics offices, as well as transit-oriented projects that could include new hotels, conference centers, offices, and residences.

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