Murphy Wants to Replace Newark Airport Monorail, No More ‘Bubblegum’ Fixes

John Reitmeyer | January 23, 2019 | Transportation
Governor appears confident that Port Authority will come up with the estimated $2 billion cost of the project

Credit: Edwin J. Torres/Governor's Office
Gov. Phil Murphy calls for the replacement of the AirTrain monorail at Newark airport.
Nearly $3 billion is being spent to modernize a busy terminal at Newark Liberty Airport, and now Gov. Phil Murphy is calling for another $2 billion to fund a replacement of the airport’s aging monorail system. It will ultimately be up to the Port Authority to pay for all the upgrades, but Murphy seems confident the bistate agency can come up with the money.

Murphy announced the ambitious plan for the AirTrain monorail during a news conference at one of the stations served by the airport’s three-mile long system.

Opened in 1996 and now reaching the end of its projected life, the AirTrain monorail is prone to delays and breakdowns, particularly in cold weather. In fact, Murphy was late to his own announcement yesterday and blamed it on an AirTrain delay.

The governor said it will cost the Port Authority, which owns and operates the system, roughly $400 million over the next decade just to maintain the faltering service.

Looking for something ‘modern and reliable’

“The simple thought is ‘Let’s not waste money keeping it on life support,’” Murphy said. “Let’s invest in a modern and reliable AirTrain.”

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The AirTrain connects rail customers to the airport via a stop on both the NJ Transit and Amtrak lines that run along the busy Northeast Corridor. It is also served by NJ Transit’s North Jersey Coast Line; other services that reach Newark Penn Station, including the PATH, bring riders just one stop away from the airport. From the Newark Liberty Airport station, the AirTrain shuttles riders between all three terminals, as well as parking facilities and rental-car lots at the airport.

But even with strong support from the governor, the proposed monorail replacement remains in its earliest stage. It will ultimately be up to the Port Authority to advance the project, which would require the cooperation of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo as Port Authority resources are generally split evenly between the two states under informal agreements hashed out by the governors.

Funding for the monorail replacement would also have to be allotted at a time when the bistate agency is pursuing other costly capital projects that are important to New Jersey commuters, such as building a long-sought replacement of the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan and financing a portion of the planned Gateway tunnel under the Hudson River. The attendance of top Port Authority officials at the event in Newark with Murphy yesterday was viewed as a good sign. But no clear funding plan was put forward, suggesting the project’s financing remains a work in progress.

The Port Authority owns and operates the region’s major airports, the Port of New York and New Jersey, as well as bridges and tunnels that connect New Jersey to New York. It uses tolls, fees and other revenues to support an operating budget that is larger than many states’ spending plans. The agency also maintains a significant capital budget to keep up its existing assets and expand the region’s transportation network to keep pace with growing demand.

In addition to providing funds for the bus terminal and Gateway project, the Port Authority’s latest capital plan included nearly $3 billion for the replacement of Newark Liberty’s Terminal A. That five-year project was launched in 2017 and when it’s completed, the new facility will address what officials say is one of the biggest criticisms of Newark airport, which is a poor customer experience. Terminal A is the airport’s oldest terminal, dating back to the airport’s opening in 1973. It handles the flights of most domestic carriers apart from United Airlines, which has Terminal C.

Costly repairs

The monorail opened in 1996, but the Newark Liberty Airport rail station used by NJ Transit and Amtrak debuted several years later. When everything works right, the monorail offers people the convenience of leaving their cars at home to get to and from one of the nation’s busiest airports relatively inexpensively. But when there are problems with the monorail system, it becomes harder for riders to be certain they will make their flights, forcing more people to use the airport’s already busy roadways and parking facilities.

Credit: Edwin J. Torres/Governor's Office
AirTrain at Newark Liberty International Airport
Murphy described the many challenges that the Port Authority is facing as it tries to keep the monorail functional. He also noted its original projected lifespan was about 25 years.

“Repairs have become more costly and they take more time to complete as parts needed to repair the current system are scarce,” Murphy said. “Eleven million riders a year on this system, they deserve more than a ‘bubblegum and duct-tape approach’ for meeting their flights.”

The governor, a first-term Democrat, also suggested yesterday that the monorail’s operating problems make it harder to pitch New Jersey as a place for companies to grow in or relocate to, especially as the millennials they want to hire are increasingly seeking public transportation as their primary means of traveling.

“The economic benefits of having one of the Northeast’s busiest international air hubs right here in New Jersey, that whole rationale screeches to a halt,” Murphy said.

No clear finance plan

While there seems to be wide agreement that the monorail system should be replaced, there’s no clearly defined way to pay for the project. Included in the Port Authority’s latest capital plan was $380 million for “interim capital repairs” that are intended only for keeping the monorail operating long enough for a replacement to be funded. The plan did not indicate how long that process could take.

Murphy suggested yesterday that the financing could involve both public and private contributions, but he did not offer any details, saying only that a finance plan is still a work in progress at the Port Authority.

He was also asked about the Port Authority’s long-term plan to extend its PATH service from Newark Penn Station to the same Newark Liberty station that currently links the AirTrain with NJ Transit and Amtrak.

The PATH extension would offer single-seat service to the airport from lower Manhattan, and Newark government officials see it as a vital economic-development opportunity. That project is estimated to cost about $2 billion, and Murphy stressed the need for there to be good planning to ensure the monorail or its successor could handle the increased demand that would be caused by extending the PATH to the airport. That suggests the monorail project could be moving ahead of the PATH extension in the line for Port Authority funding.

One potential source of cash to buttress the Port Authority’s overall capital plan could come from hiking the state’s aviation-fuel tax under a measure that is currently being considered in the New Jersey Legislature. Under existing law, the state’s 4-cent aviation-fuel tax is only levied on the gas that’s used by airplanes during taxiing and takeoffs; the legislation calls for expanding the tax to cover all fuel purchased in New Jersey.

That proposed policy change could raise as much as $40 million annually for aviation-network improvements, but Murphy was noncommittal yesterday on whether he would enact the tax hike if it reaches his desk.

“We don’t comment hypothetically on bills. Separately, the actual formula for how this (replacement) would be paid is still being baked,” Murphy said.