Port Authority Eyes Stewart as Its Fourth Airport

Port authority officials are negotiating with National Express Group for control of a long-term lease that would allow them to operate Stewart.

There is nothing bustling about Stewart International Airport.

As afternoon arrives at the airport that straddles the Hudson Valley communities of Newburgh and New Windsor in Orange County, N.Y., the main terminal takes on a sleepy lull. But a wake-up call could be rumbling on the horizon.

In a region where air traffic tie-ups are nearly as common as highway gridlock, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey views Stewart as a safety valve, a way of one day relieving the growing pressures on the region's three major airports Newark Liberty, LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy.

The worst of the problem is still 20 years away when aviation experts predict soaring flight volumes will become too much for the area's largest airports to handle. Already, the region's airspace is considered the busiest in the nation, and Newark is plagued by delays.

Port authority officials are negotiating with National Express Group, the U.S. subsidiary of a British-based transportation services company, for control of a long-term lease that would allow them to operate Stewart. The outcome of those talks could be announced later this week.

For years, the port authority has been clear about its strategy of securing a fourth airport to handle escalating demand and congestion. With no ability to add runways at Newark, JFK or LaGuardia, officials have focused on smaller airports in three states: Atlantic City in southern New Jersey, Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania, and Stewart in New York.

"We're blessed with a string of pearls," William DeCota, director of the authority's aviation department, said of the regional airports. "This is the one the port authority is exploring because this is the one that's available."

At the start of 2007, Stewart operated 20 daily flights to eight destinations. Last year, 308,583 passengers traveled through Stewart, according to the airport's data. That number could soar to 3 million during the next decade, according to the port authority's projections.

But if the port authority's first step is seizing the opportunity that exists at Stewart, the next challenge will be realizing the potential. That won't be quick or easy. It will take legislation, heavy investment, more airlines offering more destinations and long-term economic development, including such ambitious projects as a high-speed rail connecting the airport with Manhattan.

"The situation at Stewart is this, it's a regional airport asset in its rawest form," DeCota said. "It needs to be milled and mined and developed."

"Stewart has a lot of potential to serve the needs of the mid-Hudson County area," DeCota said. "That's the way you have to look at it. This is not going to be a Kennedy or a Newark airport not in the foreseeable future."

Stewart's biggest asset at least in the eyes of the port authority may be its lengthy runways. At 11,818-feet long, the primary runway is capable of accommodating the largest military planes, such as the C-5 Galaxy, as well as the behemoth of commercial jets, the double-decker styled Airbus A380.

Another bonus: Stewart is located outside the crowded metropolitan airspace, where heavy volume routinely causes flight delays.

Getting to Stewart today isn't easy. It requires driving along a rural, two-lane highway Route 300 past old strip malls and small country businesses. It is a meandering drive through a woodsy, rustic slice of the Hudson Valley, but it isn't exactly the pace for frantic airport-bound traffic. Improvements to provide a faster alternative, such as direct access from I-84 to the airport, are in the works.

Maybe even more essential for transforming Stewart into a bustling alternative airport is a long proposed rail linking Stewart to the existing Metro-North Railroad in Salisbury Mills. Ambitious and expensive, the project would connect Stewart and Manhattan.

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