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Michael Ein

Atlantic City International Airport, a key piece of Gov. Chris Christie's economic development agenda, will receive no funding support from its new operating agency under a $27.6 billion capital plan.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey will spend billions for improvements at other airports under its control, but Atlantic City is not included in the agency's new 10-year capital program. Christie's office said there was "never any expectation or obligation" for the Port Authority to help finance Atlantic City International.

Although the Port Authority took over the airport's operation last July as part of Christie's plans to boost Atlantic City, the facility is owned by another government agency, the South Jersey Transportation Authority. Port Authority spokesman Ron Marsico said the responsibility for financing airport improvements falls on the owner.

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"While the Port Authority will assist with planning for major capital projects at Atlantic City International Airport, the funding for those operations remains the responsibility of the South Jersey Transportation Authority," Marsico said.

Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak described Atlantic City International as "all upside" for the Port Authority. He said it is free of the financial obligations required of the Port Authority for another smaller airport, Stewart International in New York.

"There was never any expectation or obligation that the Port Authority would provide anything beyond management and operational expertise to grow air service at ACY," Drewniak said in an email.

Under the airport's management agreement with the Port Authority, the SJTA is responsible for all capital improvements and expenses at the airport, Drewniak said. He noted that the SJTA's 2014 capital budget includes $11.7 million in airport funding.

"Importantly, ACY is a modern facility, ready to accept additional capacity, including international flights, with no additional capital," Drewniak said. "That's one of the things that made it so attractive - that it never was expected to require capital investment by PANYNJ, in contrast to capital needs that Stewart airport in New York has required."

Under a 15-year deal, the SJTA pays the Port Authority $500,000 annually to oversee Atlantic City's operation, marketing and air-service development. The Port Authority scored an early coup by signing up United Airlines for daily flights to Atlantic City from its Chicago and Houston hubs beginning April 1.

State Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, whose legislative district includes the airport, said he understands that the Port Authority's role is to serve as airport manager, not as its funding source.

"In fairness, I can't say it surprises or bothers me," Whelan said of Atlantic City being left out of the Port Authority's capital plan.

Whelan wants the Port Authority to focus on attracting more airlines to the underserved airport. He characterized the United flights as a promising start, but would like to see the Port Authority aggressively pursue even more service, particularly international routes, to aid Atlantic City's tourism.

"The lack of service to the airport is not because of a lack of capital improvements," Whelan said. "I think the facilities - the parking garage, the terminal, the runways and so on - are beyond the level of where we need to be for the traffic we have. Until there is a demand, which seems to be quite a ways off, for additional terminal space or more parking or those types of things, I think we need to get more service in there."

Christie has made the airport's development a high priority as part of his strategy to rejuvenate Atlantic City's casino-dominated economy. The governor's creation of a state-run Tourism District in February 2011 is the centerpiece of reviving Atlantic City. Under his recovery plan announced three years ago, Christie gave Atlantic City a five-year window to turn things around, otherwise he may consider expanding casino-style gambling to the Meadowlands sports complex in North Jersey.

The Port Authority is expected to use its leverage in the aviation industry to draw more air service to Atlantic City. It oversees major transportation facilities in New York and New Jersey, including six airports and the George Washington Bridge. The agency's new $27.6 billion capital plan calls for a total of $8 billion in airport improvements, with the bulk of the funding going for new terminals at Newark Liberty International Airport and LaGuardia Airport in New York.

Two former high-level Christie appointees at the Port Authority are embroiled in a scandal involving traffic gridlock on the George Washington Bridge last year. The state Legislature is investigating whether the Port Authority appointees, who have since resigned, orchestrated traffic disruptions on the New Jersey side of the bridge as retribution against the mayor of Fort Lee, Bergen County, for his refusal to support Christie's re-election. The governor has denied any involvement in the bridge scandal.

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