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Of the many marquee projects intended to revitalize and improve lower Manhattan announced following Sept. 11, 2001, the one farthest from the drawing board is a direct rail link between John F. Kennedy Airport and the downtown business district.

A decades-old dream of downtown business and real estate interests, calls revived in recent years for a one-seat, nonstop 35-minute ride from a station likely linked to either the Fulton Street Transit Hub or World Trade Center PATH station, out to Jamaica Station in Queens.

Last month, the project got a shot in the arm when U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer announced $2 billion in tax credits – originally promised after the attacks but still unused – toward the estimated $6 billion price tag. He called the link a “once in a generation chance” to create “a big win for all of New York.”

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is leading the Port Authority, NYC Economic Development Corporation and remnants of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation – an ad hoc authority created to coordinate development efforts in the wake of Sept. 11 that closed shop recently – in an analysis of reasonable alternatives, gleaned from a previous feasibility study, that should be released by June. But some transportation planners say the link being studied is neither the best solution for downtown nor the best use of taxpayer money.

“If we already have such a good connection [to the airport] from Midtown, this doesn’t seem to be worth it,” said Kate Slevin, the associate director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, noting it currently takes 20 minutes to get from Penn Station to Jamaica – where passengers can take the AirTrain to JFK’s flight terminals – on the Long Island Railroad. “The problem is we have too many priorities in New York. We need to get out behind a couple of them and get them done.”

And those priorities lie elsewhere, agreed Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for the Straphangers Campaign of the New York Public Interest Research Group, an advocacy group for subway riders.

“We’re highly skeptical of the project,” he said. “They’ve lusted after this for over a hundred years. It’s a religious belief they have that’s not backed up by the numbers: if you build a link to downtown they will come…building a new tunnel under the East River, and a new underground line past Atlantic Avenue is a phenomenal undertaking, and $6 billion is just a number they pulled out of a hat.”

Schumer and others, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, support the project because they really do think if you build it, people will come: they say making Lower Manhattan easier to get to will make it more desirable for employees commuting from the suburbs and their employers, eventually bringing more jobs. The terminals of commuter lines to suburbs in New Jersey, Westchester, Connecticut and Long Island are currently located in Midtown.

“Ultimately, it is that rail link to the commuter that can help drive demand downtown and, for the long term, sustain lower Manhattan,” said Eric Deutsch, president of the Alliance for Downtown New York business improvement district. “It’s about making us competitive not just regionally, but nationally, as an ideal second central business district in the city. … It’s important to have a rail link to Lower Manhattan to capture that office market here.”

But Slevin and Russianoff both pointed to the long-sought Second Avenue subway line as well as the East Side Access plan to bring Long Island Railroad trains to Grand Central Terminal as higher on the wish list. Gov. Eliot Spitzer seems to be on the same page; he called for prioritization of those projects plus rebuilding the Tappan Zee Bridge and a third rail track for the LIRR when outlining his transportation priorities for the New York region in a campaign speech to the Regional Plan Association (RPA) last May. Spitzer expressed only tepid support for the JFK link, saying studies should be expedited “so that we can better evaluate the cost of the project, as well as the expected economic benefits.”

That analysis should be coming soon, and is awaited by RPA’s senior fellow for transportation, Jeffrey Zupan.

At present Zupan thinks commuters coming to Manhattan from Long Island may not be lured by the chance to get on the raillink from Jamaica Station to lower Manhattan. “My analysis suggests that, for the project the boosters have come up with, that many commuters will continue in their seats to Penn Station because the subway lines they choose to take will bring them closer to where they work,” said Zupan, adding that he would be amenable to a project that connected to the Second Avenue subway – an undertaking he said would be more favorable for lower Manhattan because it would ease congestion on the Lexington Avenue line.

“Because of the connectivity it creates, it would have a lot more riders,” he said. “This project could have some benefits if done correctly.”

– Jimmy Vielkind

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