Plans advance to replace aging Newark airport monorail

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A masked passenger is seen seated on a flight from San Francisco, California to Newark, New Jersey on October 27, 2020. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

With the release of a draft environmental report this week, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is advancing plans to replace the aging, problem-plagued monorail at Newark Liberty International Airport.

The public will have a month to submit comments on the roughly $2 billion plan, which will connect the airport’s three terminals to parking and regional rail lines. The airport’s former Terminal A is currently being replaced at a cost of $2.7 billion.

After the comment period, the Federal Aviation Administration will review the environmental report and issue findings, a process that could take a year or more.

Despite this step forward, the long-anticipated project and others in the Port Authority’s 10-year capital plan could be negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has decimated revenues from the authority’s airports, trains and bridge and tunnel crossings.

In an indication of what’s to come, the Port Authority board approved the reallocation of about $200 million on Thursday. Those funds will be redirected from ongoing, large-scale redevelopment of the terminals and taxiways at JFK Airport to standalone projects such as an electrical substation that will be needed whether or not the bigger projects are funded.

The coronavirus-related revenue shortfall will have “dire consequences” for the authority’s capital projects by next year if significant federal aid isn’t forthcoming, Executive Director Rick Cotton said in a statement Thursday.

The Newark air train was built in 1996 and required regular and costly maintenance in recent years. In 2014, it had to be taken offline for repairs for two months, forcing travelers to take shuttle buses. More than two million people ride it annually in a typical year.

The board considered replacing Newark’s air train for years but opted to prioritize extending the Port Authority’s PATH service from lower Manhattan to the airport instead. Some board members criticized that effort as redundant since New Jersey Transit and Amtrak already connect the airport to Manhattan.

The then-$1.7 billion PATH extension was included in the Port Authority’s 2017 10-year capital plan, while the air train was allocated $300 million for maintenance and repairs. The Port Authority ultimately changed course and in 2019 approved about $4 billion for a new Newark monorail as well as a rail link to New York’s LaGuardia Airport from Manhattan.

“The current AirTrain Newark has reached the end of its useful life, suffering frequent breakdowns and delays,” Cotton said in a statement Thursday. “A modern best-in-class airport must have an appealing, reliable best-in-class rail mass transit link that will eliminate headaches during travel, not cause them.”

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