For the past 23 years, Newark south ward residents could see a walking bridge from their neighborhood to a train station at Newark Liberty International Airport. On Thursday, Port Authority commissioners committed $12 million to a project that will finally open access to the bridge.
Before Port Authority commissioners unanimously approved the authorization to do preliminary engineering, design work and community outreach, the proposed direct connection between the airport and Dayton and south ward neighborhood was hailed as righting a “historic wrong,” said Darius Sollohub, a New Jersey Institute of Technology architecture professor and co-author of the Newark Airport City report.
“We applaud the Port Authority staff for beginning the planning process to open the Newark Airport train station,” he said. “Opening the station corrects a social wrong, one that has prevented Newark residents from accessing the station from their own neighborhood, all because of poorly crafted federal law.”
That law was Federal Aviation Administration Policy enacted in the 1990s that restricted the use of airport passenger facility charges for public transit projects that could only be used by, “airport patrons and workers.” Authority officials referred the regulation as a technical reason why full access couldn’t be built when the station was constructed.
One of three goals in the Newark Airport City report called for removing that restriction because it precluded Newark residents or employees from getting to the station directly and inhibited employment opportunities by making transit trips longer than needed. That report noted that efforts that would have opened the station up earlier were delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Newark Airport City is a coalition of universities, government bodies, and research entities working to maximize the benefit of the airport to Newark.
“Today marks the end of the community’s struggle and a beginning,” Sollohub said. “We need to make sure it’s not just another park and ride station.”
Relief for residents, who have been separated from the airport by a chain link fence and tracks for two-plus decades, could come as soon as 2025 when the access project is expected to be completed, said Kevin O’Toole, Port Authority board chairman.
Cost of the access project is $125 million, and the authority plans to apply for a $45 million grant that could cover about one third of the cost, he said.
The project would extend the existing pedestrian bridge that serves the airport, NJ Transit and Amtrak station west to the south ward where there would be ground transportation connections for pedestrians, people using bikes, public transit, taxis and private cars, that will lead to Frelinghuysen Avenue to the Dayton neighborhood, said Jim Heitmann, Port Authority director of aviation. Space is provided for a PATH train statsion if the $1.7 billion extension between the airport and Penn Station Newark is built.
The access project also provides transit access to NJ Transit and Amtrak, shaving a 40-minute bus ride to Newark Penn Station down to a 7-9 minute trip, O’Toole said.
“If you’re going round trip from this community to the airport, this makes it easier. That’s an hour and a half of your life back,” said Commissioner Leecia Eve. “It could be life changing in the amount of time community residents will get back and (they’ll) be able to take advantage of economic opportunities at the airport or elsewhere.”
The authority intends to have at least two planning meetings in Newark and Elizabeth about the project with the community, Heitmann said.
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka commended the authority for its dedication to south and east ward residents.
“Contributing to a more robust economy and job market in Newark, this project is as much an economic imperative as it is a moral imperative,” the mayor said in a statement. “We are grateful for the Board’s commitment to equity and equality.”
Does that mean the PATH extension project that would have originally provided access is dead?
“We have not written it off or discarded it, it’s on the list to get done,” O’Toole said. “This project with the NEC (access) is real, it’s immediate, it’s doable.”
A $700 million grant or alternate funding that was anticipated didn’t “take place,” he said.
“We’re hopeful if we can secure the funding there will be a pathway for it,” O’Toole said.
At the beginning of the board meeting, O’Toole swore in New Jersey’s trio of new board members, Murphy Chief of Staff George Helmy, Deputy Chief of Staff for Economic Growth Joe Kelley, and Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage, who took their seats on the board.
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