Thursday, April 29, 2010

Tear It Down and Start Over

Finally, some sense in travel.

An official of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said yesterday that we might as well tear down New York's LaGuardia Airport and start over by rebuilding it rather than patch the place up. The same could be said for other facilities in the United States, where decades of neglect have turned air and rail transport centers - as well as the nation's once world-class highway system and bridges - into dangerous, inconvenient, crumbling eyesores.

The Port Authority's executive director Chris Ward was unusually and refreshingly candid when he told listeners at a Crain's business breakfast in New York that LaGuardia - an outmoded airport that serves, if that is the word, 26 million passengers a year - is far beyond repair.

Additionally, "LaGuardia should not be the gateway for fliers into New York City,'' Ward said. "It should fundamentally be torn down and rebuilt again.'' If it takes a combination of public and private funding - meaning airlines would pay to build their own terminals - so be it, Ward said.

This may come as a shock even to New Yorkers, who pride themselves on being worldly wise. It surely would surprise many Americans, who have an inflated and outdated idea of their country's supremacy in all manner of things, including the quality of its buildings, roads, highways and airports. This misunderstanding endures only because most of my fellow Americans neglect to travel abroad, and many of those who do travel do it in a protective bubble of packaged tours, seeing some things but not necessarily learning much about what they see.

Airports in cities as far-flung as Hong Kong, Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur, Seoul-Incheon, Bangkok, Beijing and Barcelona - expanded or built from scratch in the last decade - are far more streamlined, well-run and beautiful than any airport in the U.S. If Americans realized how far behind they were, they might feel a sense of urgency and push to replace LaGuardia and many other facilities. Whatever happened to that splendid idea to build a new Pennsylvania Station for rail travel in the big post office in New York? It's been talked about for years.

Now would be an opportune time for the Obama administration to earmark gobs of the federal stimulis money for transport facilities, as well as other infrastructure such as parks and schools. This would put people to work during a deep and stubborn recession, enhance safety and efficiency and make the travel experience a more pleasant one. Sounds like a win-win if there ever was one.

This is no time for foot-dragging or hand-wringing. Let's move.

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