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Brace for JFK Airport traffic nightmare as $19B construction plans begin: What to know

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Memorial Day Weekend marks the unofficial start of the summer, and with it comes the anticipation of an increase in travel — which is expected to hit unprecedented levels this year.

And for those heading to the tri-state area’s busiest airport over the summer it could mean uncharted territory for traffic jams, due in part to major construction plans.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) said it anticipates screening more than three million passengers across the U.S. in just a single day at some point during this summer, a figure that has never been reached before, according to the agency.

Before that time, the TSA said that during the Thursday and Friday before Memorial Day Weekend, more than 2.9 million passengers could go through checkpoints in the U.S. The agency said it is prepared to handle the surge in travelers who will be flying out of JFK International and LaGuardia International airports for the holiday weekend.

“Here at LaGuardia Airport, we expect to see an increase of about 10 percent more travelers per day for Memorial Day Weekend than we see in an average weekend,” said Robert Duffy, TSA’s Federal Security Director for LaGuardia Airport.

At JFK Airport, the TSA expects to screen about 12,000 more travelers each day during the Memorial Day Weekend compared to a typical weekend, TSA’s Federal Security Director for JFK International Airport John Essig said. That would mark an 11.5% increase of travelers from 2023.

But while the TSA may be ready, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is warning travelers to brace for the worst when it comes to traffic getting to the airport, particularly at JFK.

“When coming to JFK this summer leave extra time,” said Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton. “We apologize in advance.”

Cotton is saying sorry for what likely will be an additional 15 to 30 minutes of driving — or even more — for those doing a drop off directly at the terminal (that also applies to cabs and rideshare apps like Uber and Lyft). Lane closures and detours will be likely.

Getting to the airport could be even tougher for folks coming from Suffolk and Nassau counties on Long Island.

“If you’re traveling from Long Island to Terminal 1, expect another 10 to 15 minutes of travel time,” said Jessica Forse, a project executive for the JFK Airport Redevelopment Program.

Port Authority said the logjam will be due to a $19 billion redevelopment at JFK Airport, one of the largest infrastructure projects in the country.

When asked if they could envision people hopping out of their cars and walking across the highway to terminals like they once did at LaGuardia Airport, Cotton said “we pray” that doesn’t happen.

Port Authority noted that due to the massive amount of construction, it is considering offering discounted (and possibly even free) AirTrain rides this summer. Currently, the AirTrain is $8.50 per person from hubs at Jamaica and Howard Beach — a price that quickly adds up for traveling families. No decision has yet been made.

“We are gonna consider every option,” said Cotton.

Officials at the airport strongly advised travelers to use mass transit to get to JFK. Port Authority urged travelers to get dropped off at the Lefferts Boulevard lot, which offers a free AirTrain ride to terminals. The Lefferts lot will be a free waiting area starting in June.

The airport project won’t be complete until 2030, but many of the new gates will open in 2026. The remodeling involves consolidating eight terminals down to four, along with six miles of new roadways. 

“It will transform what has been routinely rated one of the worst airports into one of the world’s finest,” said Cotton. “For the next two years, construction will move forward at a blistering pace.”

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