New road gives airport a lift
By ERIC ANDERSON, Deputy Business Editor First published: Sunday, December 11, 2005
It's two lanes wide, it's the last road you take to get to the terminal at Stewart International Airport, and it's often heavily congested.
Expansion of winding Drury Lane into a four-lane highway that would connect a new airport access road directly to Interstate 84 has been blocked by opponents worried that development would ruin the fields and woods west of the airport. But an agreement last month with the Stewart Park and Reserve Coalition, or SPARC, cleared the way for the highway project. The agreement had its price, economic development officials say. Most of the land west of the airport, about 1,600 acres, will remain undeveloped, protected as state forest. "The loss of those acres is a huge negative impact," said Maureen Halahan, president of the Orange County Partnership, an economic development group based in Goshen. "The trade-off was extraordinarily large. There wasn't a whole lot of compromise." But Sandra Kissam, president of SPARC, said the agreement preserves the space for the public, which can hike, ride bicycles and take part in other leisure activities in what is otherwise a rapidly developing region. "It's an extraordinary oasis," she said Friday, comparing it to the role Central Park plays in the middle of Manhattan. If highway proponents are correct, the road project should lead to new air service from a number of major carriers, including Southwest Airlines and JetBlue. Southwest is among those airport management has been talking with, said Chuck Seliga, president and chief operating officer at Stewart. But the congested two-lane road to the airport has been an obstacle. "Southwest has said don't tell me about Drury Lane anymore," Seliga said last week. "Just tell me when the shovel's in the ground." The shovel could go into the ground as soon as mid-January. When the nearly $50 million project is completed in late 2007, a new highway will link Interstate 84 directly to the airport terminal. Meanwhile, another interchange will connect Interstate 84 with the New York State Thruway. The two interstates cross, but there's never been a direct connection. Instead, traffic had to exit onto local roads from one superhighway before they could enter the other. It's like having to exit onto Broadway in Menands to connect between I-787 and I-90. The project also is good news for Albany developer First Columbia LLC, which has been seeking to develop an office park on Stewart property. While Kevin Bette, a principal at First Columbia, said although he lobbied to keep the land along Drury Lane available for development, its removal from the marketplace should help his project along. "From my standpoint, it's just great, because there's no competition," Bette said. While Bette may not face competition, it could be another story for Albany International Airport. Now, the much larger Albany airport, with low-fare carriers Southwest and Independence Air, draws passengers from a wide region, including the mid-Hudson Valley.
"There is leakage from our market up to Albany," said Tanya Vanasse, general manager for marketing at Stewart. "We'd be a competitor only to keep our own market here." But landing even JetBlue could make a difference. "Our catchment area does extend to that region," said John O'Donnell, chief executive officer at Albany International Airport. "If JetBlue moved into Stewart, we'd probably see some leakage to that airport, no doubt." Stewart has seen airport boardings dwindle as airlines have reduced flights. October boardings fell 53 percent from year-earlier levels to 14,218 passengers. Albany saw a more modest 0.9 percent decline, to 136,725 boardings. But Stewart has a much larger population surrounding its airport. "Their market potential is almost twice as great as Albany's," Bette said. Stewart saw 219,000 boardings in the 12 months ending in October. Bette said Stewart could see a sixfold or eightfold increase in passengers. The airport also is being studied as a reliever airport for New York City's three major airports, Kennedy, Newark and LaGuardia, said O'Donnell and Seliga. U.S. Rep. Susan Kelly, R-Katonah, has obtained authorization for $100 million in federal funds to build a direct rail connection to the airport, extending Metro North Railroad's commuter service. Travelers would be able to reach the terminal in 77 minutes from Penn Station, according to a study cited by Seliga. With the reconstruction of the Tappan Zee Bridge that carries the Thruway across the Hudson River providing for a rail line as well, service could also extend to the east side of the Hudson. No timetable has been established for the rail links. Meanwhile, Bette has completed office buildings containing about 400,000 square feet of space. His master plan calls for up to 2.5 million square feet, a $500 million project that would house regional sales offices serving the entire Northeast, as well as medical, technology and other businesses. New York International Plaza, the name of the project, includes a world trade center facility. Stewart, with an 11,800-foot runway that can handle the largest cargo planes, may also develop into a major freight hub. Albany's longest runway will be 8,500 feet when work on an extension is completed next year. Seliga says Stewart has about 2,200 acres, with much of it available for development. Albany International Airport, by comparison, covers about 1,200 acres. When the Iraq war was first under way, Stewart handled the world's largest cargo plane, the Antonov An-225, which carried General Electric power generation equipment to Iraq, Seliga said.
That's a far cry from the first airplane that Archie Stewart ever saw. Stewart, whose family contributed the land from their property that made up the original parcel for the airport, recalled to family members years later how he and thousands of others in the Hudson Valley gathered to watch air pioneer Glenn Curtiss fly his plane overhead on May 31, 1910, en route to New York City from Albany. His flight is widely regarded as the first to demonstrate the potential of airplanes as long-distance transportation.
In later years, the airport served as military base, but it wasn't until 1989 that Stewart got its first scheduled passenger service, when American Airlines began flying to Chicago and Raleigh/Durham. Over the years, other carriers came and went. Today, American Eagle, US Airways Express, Northwest Airlink and low-fare carrier Allegiant Air all serve the airport.
And Kissam, the president of SPARC, says that while she doesn't use Stewart, "we feel the airport can certainly be a local asset." But she adds, "we wouldn't want to see a major jetport."
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