If you've flown into the New York metropolitan area on one of the 1 million planes that pass through its airports each year, you've no doubt experienced delays before landing or taking off. Such frustrations for air travelers have been on the rise: According to the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 40% of flights into and out of JFK, Newark Liberty and LaGuardia airports through the first five months of 2007 logged delays, the worst record in a decade.
This is not only an inconvenience, it also does real harm. Aircraft contribute a variety of pollutants to the environment exacerbating asthma, lung disease and emergency room visits even among healthy people. Airport operations, planes and jets also release carbon into the atmosphere, a major cause of global climate change.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees these airfields, is taking steps to alleviate the gridlock. It recently took control of Stewart International Airport, a sleepy regional facility 60 miles north of Manhattan in the heart of the Hudson River Valley. The authority's goal is to expand Stewart, provide better service to the region's residents and relieve some of the congestion at the other downstate airports. While people who live around Stewart have concerns that expanded operations will exacerbate air and noise pollution and fuel sprawling development, the Port Authority has pledged to make the facility the world's first "carbon-negative" airport. This is a bold promise that could have national and international repercussions for the industry. "Carbon negative" means Stewart will actually cause a net reduction in the amount of greenhouse gases going into the environment.
How can the Port Authority achieve this? It has yet to announce a plan, but the possibilities are multi-faceted. It likely will incorporate the latest energy-efficient and environmentally sensitive design into all new airport buildings. On-site generation of power from solar or wind energy will help. Connecting the airport to Manhattan via mass transit already is under review, but the nearby city of Newburgh also should be linked to save fuel and help revitalize the economically depressed downtown.
The Port Authority is collaborating with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute on green-technology opportunities, but it also could partner with airlines committed to reducing carbon emissions, such as Virgin Atlantic. Its chairman, Richard Branson, has earmarked Virgin's earnings $3 billion over the next decade to renewable-energy research. Soon, new engines developed for his fleet will cut emissions per flight by 30%. (Virgin already was the first airlines to fly a plane using bio-fuel, relying on a mixture of babassu nuts and coconuts.) Mr. Branson's recommendations for creating energy-efficient airports include use of clean-fueled tugs to tow aircraft across the tarmac with their engines switched off prior to takeoff and after landing.
No matter how efficient the Port Authority makes the airport itself, it likely will still have difficulty reducing aircraft emissions enough to achieve the goal of carbon negativity, particularly as it seeks to expand service. The Port Authority should work with local land conservation organizations to preserve open space in its Hudson Valley service area to sequester carbon in forested land. It also should promote smart growth to arrest or even reverse the sprawling residential and big-box retail development that increases automobile emissions around the airport. The key is to direct new development into nearby city centers such as downtown Newburgh and around transit hubs, preserving the remaining working farms and other open spaces around Stewart. To lead the way, the Port Authority should consider locating its regional office in Newburgh.
With careful planning and consultation with residents and stakeholders, the Port Authority can slow the pace of climate change and promote smart, transit-oriented economic development while preserving the Hudson Valley as a world-class place to live and visit.
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