Posted: Friday, March 25, 2011
By JULIET FLETCHER, Staff Writer Press of Atlantic City
The Atlantic City International Airport could soon be sold or leased to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey under plans that could bring major expansion, Senate President Stephen Sweeney said Friday.
The airport, currently operated by the South Jersey Transportation Authority, may be sold under the same legislation that created the Atlantic City Tourism District earlier this year. The law established a mechanism for regional distribution of the proceeds of any sale of Atlantic City airport. That language marked the first public sign that an airport sale was even being considered.
Sweeney, the highest-ranking Democrat in the state, said he was aware that the Port Authority, which operates Newark Liberty International Airport, among others, was exploring the possibility of the sale or lease.
“It’s something I know the Port of New York is supposed to be looking at right now,” he said.
“Selling the airport is to get the expertise and basically the buying power of the Port of New York that operates Newark Airport to try to bring larger carriers in to Atlantic City and develop it,” he said during a meeting with The Press of Atlantic City editorial board.
“Thinking about how underutilized it is and how you create economic development, there’s so much that can go with the airport.”
Sweeney said the timing of a sale or lease depends on the arrival of a new director of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, the agency that will operate the Tourism District in Atlantic City. The senator said Gov. Chris Christie’s administration will conduct a national search for a new CRDA executive director.
Several officials at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey did not return calls seeking comment.
Sweeney, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, said the sale or lease would effectively end the SJTA’s role as an airport operator.
Authority spokeswoman Sharon Gordon said, “The SJTA has no comment.”
The Port Authority operates three airports — Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark — within a 25-mile radius. Any sale would be tied to the Port Authority’s late 2007 takeover of operations of an airport in upstate New York. The authority purchased the lease to operate an airport in Stewart, Orange County, N.Y.
Then-Acting Gov. Richard Codey enacted a law in May 2007 allowing the authority to run the Stewart airport, which is outside of its geographic jurisdiction. To balance that approval, the bi-state authority has the option to also run a New Jersey airport outside of its operating radius. New Jersey’s governor can approve the airport chosen by the authority, under the law.
Despite the provision in the Tourism District legislation providing for the potential sale or lease of the airport, Atlantic County officials and state lawmakers said they weren’t aware that movement could come soon.
Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson said he had heard nothing more than hypothetical suggestions of the Port Authority’s involvement in Atlantic City, going back several years.
“Not to say I would stand in the way of it,” he said. “We’ve known for years we could do more to maximize the airport.”
State Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, was a prime sponsor of the Atlantic City legislation that included the clause to allow the sale of the airport. Sale proceeds would go to Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester, Ocean, and Salem counties, the areas served by the SJTA, for transportation purposes.
“I talked about that idea with (Sweeney) many times during the crafting of the bills,” Whelan said.
He said he would support the move if it would allow the airport’s expansion, a greater menu of flights and a better way for visitors to reach the resort.
“We have a lot of people there who do a good job right now, and obviously that’s a concern,” Whelan added. “But we could take a giant step toward bringing in more visitors.”
Republican Assemblyman Vince Polistina, R-Atlantic, said he had concerns about the sudden floating of the idea.
“Any time we’ve seen northern New Jersey entities taking over southern New Jersey assets, they’ve seemed to always take resources out of there,” he said. “I’d definitely have concerns about that.”
Assemblyman John Amodeo, R-Atlantic, went further. “I would be completely opposed to that,” he said upon hearing the suggestion.
Amodeo and Polistina have both been critical in the past of SJTA policy decisions. But both said they would rather see the authority continue its efforts to expand its stable of airlines and destinations, which currently include Chicago, Boston, Detroit, Atlanta.
“I believe in home rule, in most cases,” Amodeo said.
Stripping the airport from SJTA’s portfolio would leave the authority in charge of the Atlantic City Expressway, where tolls and advertising have supported the airport, which operates at a loss. However, the facility, which totals 2,200 acres including all runways, taxiways, and commercial airport aprons, as well as development and environmental mitigation areas, handled 1.4 million passengers last year, its highest total ever.
The SJTA is currently undertaking a $25 million terminal expansion.
The airport site also hosts the federally funded William J. Hughes Technical Center, and the NextGen Aviation Research and Technology Park is being built adjacent to the airport.
Sweeney said he would be comfortable with giving up regional ownership or operation of the airport, which he said was “crawling along, doing OK.” Handing the reins to a major operator would bring clout and, inevitably, major growth, he said.
“I’m not as concerned about, well, I’m in South Jersey, they’re in North Jersey,” he said.
“I’m looking at the Newark Airport, and the power and the size and the financial resources they have, and Atlantic City that is under-developed, underutilized and could really be a big, big plus in this region, if we could get these Continental Airlines and larger carriers looking at it.
“Atlantic City has their own air space,” he went on. “It’s as large as Philadelphia, Newark and most of LaGuardia combined, and we don’t have these large carriers coming in there.”
Not only were those major hubs already congested, he said, but they were landlocked.
“We’re not,” he said. “So how about looking at us?”
Passengers flying in and out of Atlantic City International on Friday afternoon said they had no knowledge of the proposal. They expressed mixed feelings about expanding the airport.
“We’re doing this because it’s a smaller airport,” said Mark Munley of the Long Valley section of Washington Township, Morris County, who was flying to Florida with his family.
Munley said he usually uses Newark Liberty Airport, which is much larger, and this was his first time flying out of Atlantic City.
“The smaller ones are easier with families,” he said.
Jason Bock, visiting from Boston, said the airport is fine, “but pretty small.” His wife, Miriam Gates, also liked the compact arrangement.
“It’s nice because you get free parking for an hour,” Gates said. “If it gets bigger, I don’t know if they’d still do that.”
But others said allowing the airport to grow would be better for the local economy.
Keishly Dominguez of Egg Harbor City, who is starting a job at the airport, said growth would mean more jobs in construction and other fields. An expansion would also allow more people to visit Atlantic City and would give local residents more destinations they can fly to from the airport.
“The most important thing is more jobs around here, because everyone’s getting laid off from the casinos,” Dominguez said.