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High-speed rail plan set for unveiling

(The following story by Errol A. Cockfield Jr. and Joshua Robin appeared on the New York Newsday website on February 3.)

NEW YORK -- Officials Wednesday are expected to release a plan for linking lower Manhattan and Kennedy Airport via high-speed rail.

Building on a connection from Jamaica to Kennedy that was established in December with the opening of the Air Train, the project would extend the Air Train route to the Long Island Rail Road terminal in Downtown Brooklyn.

From there, four alternatives are being considered, ranging from running the AirTrain from Brooklyn to Manhattan through the A and C subway tunnel, to jetting commuters through a new tunnel under the East River.

State and city officials are slated this afternoon to announce the plans, which could cost as much as $6 billion, but a final option will not be chosen until April.

The proposal has been on the drawing board for months and has triggered a range of reaction in a city that has a lengthy list of unfunded transportation priorities.

Business interests that back improved access to lower Manhattan say the district needs the link to tap into the labor pool on Long Island.

"If you made it easier for people to get to lower Manhattan from Long Island they would accept jobs," said Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York.

But community groups and fiscal watchdogs argue the plan is a waste of money because commuters can already get to lower Manhattan in minutes after leaving the LIRR at Pennsylvania Station or the Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn.

There are no commuter rails to lower Manhattan, but 11 subway lines stop south of City Hall. Officials also are planning ferry routes across the East River and expanded rail access to Manhattan's East Side via Grand Central Terminal.

Additionally, the Port Authority has said it wants to run ferries from lower Manhattan to Kennedy Airport by 2005. Service to LaGuardia is slated to begin by the end of the year.

It remains unclear whether any of the rail plans would offer a one-seat ride because doing so would require AirTrain cars to travel on both subway and LIRR tracks.

Early details about the competing proposals also have drawn criticism from city transit activists who worry that the new commuter train would displace subway riders by forcing them to transfer more frequently because of links to the new service.

"If you're reading a book or a Bible or a newspaper, you really don't want to get up and start in the Darwinian struggle on a new train," said Gene Russianoff, staff attorney of the Straphangers Campaign.

There is also concern that the project will tap into and possibly exhaust federal funds set aside for economic development in lower Manhattan. While business groups say improved transit is a top priority, community groups say officials should funnel money into affordable housing, job growth and neighborhood revitalization.

"If people are not able to get jobs and there is no place for people to live ... that will be a real waste of money," said Margaret Fung, a member of Community Board 1.

Wednesday, February 4, 2004

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