NEW YORK CITY-In a move to address congestion at New York’s metropolitan airports, the Board of Commissioners of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey approved a plan on Thursday to purchase the operating lease of Stewart International Airport in Newburgh, NY. The proposed deal would have the Port Authority pay National Express Corp. $78.5 million for the lease.

National Express, headquartered in the United Kingdom, signed a 99-year lease to operate the airport in 2000 for $35 million with the New York State Department of Transportation, the owner of the airport.

The Port Authority announced several months ago that it was seriously studying the possibility of acquiring the lease or acquiring the airport outright from NYSDOT.

Port Authority director of aviation William DeCota briefed the commissioners this morning on the proposal and said that the agency hopes to have an agreement signed with National Express by Feb. 13 and close on the transaction by Sept. 30. The Port Authority will hire an interim manager for Stewart for a term not to exceed a year. The agency will put out a Request for Proposal to select a long-term manager for the facility that will work with Port Authority staff.

The authority did not release the name of the interim management firm. The National Express spokeswomen says the firm will not be the interim manager for Stewart if the deal is finalized.

Commenting on the deal, she says, “We are very pleased to find out that the Port Authority voted unanimously to purchase the lease. We think they are a great organization with a lot of experience and we are looking forward to working with them.”

Stewart has been an underutilized airport serving just 300,000 passengers in 2006. Port Authority airports (JFK, LaGuardia, Newark Liberty and Teterboro) handled 103.4 million passengers last year. DeCota says the PA projects its facilities will service 125 million passengers by 2015 and 150 million by 2025.

While Stewart has struggled to increase passenger loads for some time, air travel at Stewart is expected to increase dramatically this year with discount carriers Jet Blue and AirTran having recently launched service at the airport. The facility has two large runways that can handle major commercial aircraft.

Port Authority executive director Anthony Shorris says of the pending deal, “Through a measured program of significant investments, the Port Authority will be able to transform Stewart Airport. We can turn that sleepy, underutilized facility into a dynamic transportation hub that will, along with our other investments in our regional airport system, allow us to meet the incredible growth in demand for air travel. We expect Stewart will play a significant role in an integrated airport system that helps JFK, Newark and LaGuardia meet the challenges ahead.”

A number of approvals need to be obtained for the deal to close, including legislation in New Jersey that would allow the Port Authority to extend its jurisdiction outside the 25-mile barrier from the Statue of Liberty.

In prepared statements, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer and New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine praised the deal stating that Stewart will help alleviate congestion at the three major regional airports.

“The expansion of Stewart Airport is a critical component of the continued growth of the Hudson Valley,” says Gov. Spitzer. “The Port Authority’s action today recognizes that vision and will create a major economic engine for the region with impacts that will reach far beyond the Hudson Valley. Stewart Airport will provide much-needed relief for our three major airports, greatly reduce delays, and help us prepare for inevitable population and passenger growth.”

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