Thursday, June 01, 2017

Tax Watch: Rob Astorino's fancy dance on Westchester County Airport (KHPN) master plan

Tax Watch columnist David McKay Wilson reviews Westchester County's airport's master plan. 

County Executive Rob Astorino’s dance around the terminal use agreement at Westchester County Airport just got fancier.

That pact, which limits commercial airlines to 240 passengers per half hour and limits them to take off from four gates, appears to be an afterthought in Astorino’s draft airport master plan, released last week.

Five years in the making, the master plan says the county will consider adding two departure gates over the next five years to deal with increased commercial air traffic.

The new plan includes the investment of $462 million in a myriad of projects, including the construction by 2032 of two parking garages, a $50 million corporate jet hangar, and a $10 million building for U.S. Customs and the county police.

Parking expansion, which also includes a new surface lot, would accommodate an additional 3,400 new parking spaces, including a three-story structure near the terminal that could accommodate about 1,700 cars. Currently, the terminal’s parking garage, which can fill up during holiday periods, has about 1,400 spaces.

Created at a cost to taxpayers of $1.4 million, the master plan, which was submitted to the FAA in early May, states the document provides a framework for future airport development and “is in line with the County’s vision.”

Westchester’s last update came in 1986, setting the stage for construction of the airport terminal and parking garage, based on forecasts of air traffic within the constraints of the passenger cap.  

The 2017 plan’s forecast for increased air traffic by 2032 does not consider the strict constraints on air traffic in place here since 1987. They were not considered because air travelers from Westchester wouldn’t consider the constraints when booking a flight, the report states.

“Therefore, the existence of the terminal use regulation would not affect passenger demand in a meaningful way,” it stated.

Purchase resident Jonathan Wang,who lives near the airport and keeps his private plane there, noted that the plan's 20-year projection of air traffic, based on 2012 data, is already five years out of date.

The “medium” projection forecasts an increase in air traffic of 72 percent from 2017 to 2032.

“How can the master plan projections ignore the terminal use agreement?” said Wang. “How can they make plans for the future based on that forecast?”

The plan was made public last week as private companies develop proposals to privatize HPN's management and operations in a 40-year lease deal that would free up airport revenues for general county use — including a $15 million hole in the 2017 county budget. DY Consulting, which drew up the master plan, received a waiver from the county Board of Legislators to compete in the process. Bids are due July 14.  

At least one environmentalist was stunned to read what Astorino has planned for Westchester.

“It’s flat-out expansion, far greater than anything we ever anticipated,” said Ted Anderson of the Sierra Club’s Westchester chapter. “That’s very disturbing.”

Astorino in 2016 proposed relaxing the passenger cap, to allow the passenger limit per half-hour to be calculated as an average over the airport’s 18 hours of operation. But he withdrew the proposal in the face of growing opposition.

In November, he insisted that the company taking over the airport in his privatization deal would abide by the passenger cap and gate limit.

Astorino spokesman TJ McCormack said the plan was “based upon theoretical parameters, and as such are helpful planning pools.” He reiterated Astorino’s fealty to the passenger cap and gate limit.

But McCormack declined to explain how the county executive’s embrace of those limits jibed with his master plan. He also declined to say whether Astorino planned to submit the plan to the county Board of Legislators for adoption, as was done in 1986, or when he would schedule an opportunity for the public to comment on it.

Legislator David Gelfarb, R-Rye Brook, whose district includes the airport, said the terminal use agreement, and the plan’s conclusion that its runways not be lengthened, would ensure that expansion not occur. He added that the rosy forecasts for airline growth in the master plan from 2012 and 2017 have not come true, which makes the proposed expansion less likely.

“Those six gates might be nice to have, but it’s irrelevant," Gelfarb said.

Expect the county Board of Legislators to take its time reviewing the master plan, which has been kept under wraps over the past five years as the consultants met with airport officials, corporate fleet owners and the owners of small planes. The only public input so far was in 2013 at the beginning of the study.

The plan also has ramifications in Astorino’s airport privatization sweepstakes. Legislator MaryJane Shimsky, D-Hastings-on-Hudson, noted that the current parking garage has proved a boon to its private operator. Two more parking garages could entice higher bids for a company looking to turn a profit at the public transportation hub. 

“That should increase the value of offers we get,” said Shimsky, who chairs the legislature’s Infrastructure Committee, which will review the master plan. “There are so many questions.”  

David McKay Wilson is an opinion columnist for The Journal News/lohud and writes the weekly Tax Watch column. 

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