Routes to the Future

A22-MILE railway connecting Manhattan to Kennedy International and LaGuardia Airports must sound like a brilliant idea to any frequent flyer who has made a slow stop-and-go journey by taxi or bus. The modern traveler deserves better than this.

But late 20th-century governments are going broke. So the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is backing off what has been described as the biggest transit project in New York City since the 1930s. The word ''privatize'' is being spoken by the new governors of New York and New Jersey, George Pataki and Christine Todd Whitman. The railway, scheduled for completion in 2003, is now being discussed as an operation to be developed in ''phases.''

True, the project has gone over budget. Originally estimated at $2.5 billion, the railway now bears a price tag of $3 billion. But meanwhile, in Colorado, the new $4.2 billion Denver International Airport -- first scheduled to open in October 1993 -- has gone over budget by $2.5 billion, to more than twice its original estimate.

Nobody talked of backing off the Denver project -- nor is anybody pulling back from Boston's Third Harbor Tunnel, now far over budget with an estimated cost of $7.7 billion.

In transportation, the American order of priority seems to read thus: Airports first, with second place reserved for any revised highway system that promises to relieve traffic congestion, even though congestion may be back where it was by the time the project is completed.

Last on the list of transportation priorities is anything to do with rails. The Europeans and Japanese are proud of their rail systems, but in the United States, just say the word Amtrak and the money dries up. Even the railway project in New York, wedding itself to two airports, seems to suffer the stigma of being retro-rail.

Trouble in the Middle East may trigger memories of gas lines -- of the folly of an oil-dependent civilization whose automobiles and planes, not to mention trailer trucks, pollute the earth while depleting its resources. But the memories don't imprint the history lesson as they should.

Comprehensive long-range transportation policy in America needs to include the right balance of air, road, and rail.

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