Cost to replace Newark airport monorail could top $1B, experts say

By Steve Strunsky | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on April 29, 2015

Transportation experts say it could cost more than $1 billion to replace the AirTrain at Newark Liberty International Airport, which the Port Authority says cannot meet projected growth in demand for air travel.

 

NEWARK — Replacing the AirTrain monorail system at Newark Liberty International Airport could cost well over a billion dollars, transportation experts say.

"Just based on the numbers they're going to spend on the planning and technical expertise, they're gong to spend three quarters of a billion to 1.1 billion (dollars)," to construct a new system, said Lawrence Fabian, a New York-based transportation planner specializing in automated people-mover systems for airports.

On Thursday, the Port Authority Board of Commissioners are scheduled for a vote to authorize spending $40 million on planning and technical consultants to replace the 19-year-old system, which has had reliability problems as it approaches the end of its anticipated lifespan, while also unable to accommodate growing demand for air travel.

Replacement of the Newark AirTrain is the second major project to arise as a priority for the Port Authority after they were left out of a $27.6 billion, 10-year capital plan adopted by the agency's board of commissioners in February 2014. Replacing the monorail and the Port Authority Bus Terminal, a project estimated to cost $8 to 10 billion, means the agency must raise billions of dollars missing from the agency's projected revenue stream, or cutting projects or spending elsewhere.

TheAirTrain, which carries 30,000 people a day, was completed in 1996 at an initial cost of $354 million, then expanded in 2001 to link with Northeast Corridor rail service at an additional cost of $415 million, for a total construction cost of about $770 million, not adjusted for inflation.

Veronica Vanterpool, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a transit advocacy group, said a realistic estimate simply to replace the existing system would be more than a billion dollars, not even counting additional costs of expanding the system.

"We've seen that some of these rail projects can be incredibly expensive," said Vanterpool.

Other experts were reluctant to put a price tag on replacing the monorail system, in part because a number of variables have yet to be addressed, including how large a capacity expansion is envisioned and what form the new system would take, whether another monorail or something else.

For example, a significant expansion could require changes to the system's current right-of-way, station locations or platform lengths, or even Newark Liberty's Terminals A, B or C, said Richard Barone, director of transportation projects for the Regional Plan Association, a research group that recommended replacing the AirTrain in a 2011 report on growing demand for air travel in the region.

Experts said it was possible that consultants would recommend a system other than a monorail to move people to and around the airport.

For example, the system at John F. Kennedy International Airport, also known as the AirTrain, is actually a narrow-gauge rail line elevated on a narrow concrete platform. The 8-mile long JFK system was completed in 2002 at a cost of $1.2 billion, including links to Long Island Railroad and New York City Subway stations in Queens.

The AirTrain was designed with a 25-year lifespan, which would lapse in 2021, and the system has been subject to service interruptions due to power failures, accidents and maintenance. For example, last summer the AirTrain was closed for two months to fill what were essentially 60 potholes in the steel and epoxy running surface, narrow platforms on either side of the central power rail where the weight of the cars is born on rubber tires.

Apart from its physical deterioration, the system has been criticized for its slow speed, particularly along the mile-long stretch linking the airport's terminals and parking lots to a station operated by NJ Transit along the Northeast Corridor line.

Vanterpool said the monorail's replacement doesn't have to cost so much, if the Port Authority is willing to consider a traditionally less glamorous mode of transport: buses. As an example, Vanterpool cited the CTfastrack project near Hartford, Conn., which opened last month at a cost of $570 million, operating basically as a 9-mile bus-only roadway along a railroad right of way, using buses equipped with wi-fi.

Closer by, Vanterpool pointed to the MTA's Select Bus Service from Manhattan to LaGuardia Airport, which uses regular roadways but cost just $8 million, mainly for special buses with features like luggage racks.

In questioning the bus terminal cost projections last month, several commissioners urged Port Authority staffers to "think outside the box" to come up with cheaper alternatives. And while she acknowledged that buses may not be the kind of mode that some travelers may have in mind for moving through airports, Vanterpool said the same kind of fresh thinking should apply to replacing the AirTrain.

"For that kind of price tag," she said, "they ought to think about a bus rapid transit system with dedicated bus lanes."

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