Office of the Governor

Rendering of the envisioned AirTrain.

There has been talk about building an “air train” to LaGuardia Airport since before the place was officially known as LaGuardia Airport. Over the years, supporters of an air train have bemoaned the lack of a direct rail link to one of the city’s two, major international airports—especially after JFK Airport established such a link in 2003—but cost and logistics have proven to be high hurdles.

Now Gov. Andrew Cuomo has set out to overcome those obstacles and build a $1.5 billion rail line from the Willets Point Long-Island Railroad station to the LGA terminals. The proposal is now moving into environmental review, with the Federal Aviation Administration in position to make the final decision about whether and what to build. The state’s hope is for shovels to go into the ground in 2020 and service to begin in 2022.

While the governor and the Port Authority (which controls the region’s airports) have argued forcefully that an AirTrain is an absolute necessity, especially with LaGuardia’s passenger traffic expected to rise, the project has many critics. Transportation advocates believe Cuomo’s AirTrain will have a minimal impact on travel times and say the plan ignores the potential for an expanded bus system to provide more service to LAG. Environmentalists are worried that the train will set back efforts to clean up Flushing Bay and further restrict public access to that waterbody. Airport neighbors—who already have a litany of complaints about noise and air quality around LAG—worry about the impact on their quality of life and home values.

No one seems to regard this as a “done deal,” however. The federal environmental review is expected to evaluate a long list of potential alternatives to the AirTrain—like more buses, ferries, extending the N or W train—as well as alternatives the Port’s preferred path for the AirTrain, which is above and along the Flushing Bay Promenade (one alternate route, disliked by environmentalists, would run the train out over the bay itself).

Last week, City Limits moderated a panel discussion about the train sponsored by Riverkeeper, Guardians of the Bay and the Ditmars Boulevard Block Association featuring Mike Dulong from Riverkeeper, Lynn Kelly from New Yorkers for Parks, Leticia Ochoa from Queens Neighborhoods United, Nick Sifuentes of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and Frank Taylor from the Ditmars Boulevard Block Association.

We ran out of time for all the inquiries the audience had, so we asked all the panelists to weigh in on some of the questions attendees submitted about this important project. Here’s what they said:

This project has a 40-year history. Why is there more momentum to build the Air Train now?

James Carriero, counsel to the Ditmars Boulevard Block Association: The publicized reason is that then vice-president Biden came to NYC and pronounced LGA a “third world airport,” which motivated the Governor to demand a train to LGA. The need was based on the fact that LGA is the only airport in the US without train access. The Airtrain became the Governor’s pet project for mass transit access to the airport, especially since the JFK Airtrain was deemed successful. In addition, transportation studies for the re-development of the airport predicted substantial increased use of the airport and the delay in traveling from Manhattan. Traffic studies indicate that the current more than one-hour ride at peak times by car from midtown will only get worse. We, of course, suspect that the LGA Airtrain is tied to the future development of Willets Point and are concerned that this is a first step in the expansion of the airport to the surrounding neighborhoods. A major part of the Airtrain project that is buried in the RFP is the construction of employee parking lots, a consolidated rental car facility and a hotel. There is no room for these facilities at the Willets Point train station. PANYNJ has kept their location a secret.

What are the most effective actions the public can take to have the greatest impact?

Carriero: DBBA is not a political organization but becomes involved in issues that affect its members and the community. It seems to us that the public should voice its opposition to the governmental agencies charged with approving the project (e.g., the FAA conducting the EIS, the PACB approving financing), at other airport oversight groups (Aviation Roundtable), at press conferences, at the community organization level, garnering community board support for our position, at PANYNJ Board meetings and should enlist elected officials and other officials who have a stake (e.g., the State Comptroller), publicizing opposition in the press and other media, and lastly, public protests. Unfortunately, the NYS Assemblymember (Jeffrion Aubrey) and the NYC Councilperson (Francisco Moya) both support the Airtrain and are believed to be politically aligned with the Governor. Aubrey introduced the bill which provided the authority to condemn parkland for the proposed routes.

Lynn Kelly, New Yorkers for Parks: The most effective actions that the public can take to have the greatest impact is to show up early and often in the public process. The public can familiarize themselves with the process by reading the Citizen’s Guide to the National Environmental Policy Act (available here in English and in Spanish) to identify where they can get involved. The community should identify what it is they need and want, and develop a set of consistent talking points and asks that they can raise repeatedly to ensure that their message is clear and unmistakable by decision makers.

Mike Dulong, senior attorney, Riverkeeper: The public should contact their federal, state and local elected representatives to ask for their positions on the AirTrain and the reasoning behind those positions. The public should also register their concerns about the project with the representatives. Everyone should also engage in the environmental review process to ensure the Federal Aviation Administration understands all of the potential impacts of approving an AirTrain, and that it considers all feasible alternatives.

Routing the train along Grand Central Parkway vs Promenade: Which impacts the community more?

Carriero: We believe the parkway median impacts the community more because it is closer to our homes along Ditmars Boulevard and would require a guideway elevated to a height of some 70 feet to pass over walkways from the neighborhood to promenade and Flushing Bay. At this height, it would be an eyesore, detract from views of the Bay and, despite being elevated would create a barrier between the community and the Bay. Years ago when the City Planning Commission rezoned the area around the traffic circle for construction of the Marriott Hotel, it imposed a restrictive covenant against building on the Hotel’s parking lot in order to preserve open vistas. For homes adjacent to the Parkway, it would be like having a train in your bedroom.

Dulong: Certainly both routes will have a greater impact on East Elmhurst than no action, bus rapid transit, ferry service, or other feasible options. Yet this question is precisely why it is so important that the environmental review be done right so we can understand the full impacts each.

Why not extend the N/W trains to LGA?

Carriero: Great question! This was the original proposal in the 1990’s that was defeated by community opposition in Astoria backed by Peter Vallone. But extending the N/W trains will merely shift the burden to another community. The problems with the Airtrain are not NIMBY problems. The AirTrain makes no sense from transportation, financial and engineering (it will be outdated by the time construction is finished) points of view, and it is intended to benefit only travelers to/from Manhattan (the stated purpose of the project is to provide a “30-minute one-seat ride” from midtown). If the new LGA is to move out of “third world” status and is to be a gateway to NYC, why force travelers onto an overcrowded and poorly maintained subway line or an LIRR train that runs infrequently. Consider also that a large portion of Manhattan residents have to take the subway to access the LIRR, adding another seat and even more time.

Dulong: This is a great question – and one that will have to be evaluated in the environmental review process. Frankly, we should all be asking, what is in the best interest for New Yorkers? And how can it have the lightest impact on local communities and our environment?

We should stop the AirTrain, But, if it can’t be stopped, what can we get?

Carriero: Would like to think about this, but anything that benefits the community and improves the quality of life in East Elmhurst. Some things that come to mind immediately and not necessarily in priority are requisite percentage of employment at the airport from the local community, improvements to schools, neighborhood beautification and home improvement grants/loans, development of, and better access to, the waterfront, cleaning the Bay, better enforcement of traffic laws, etc., etc.

Dulong: Regardless of what alternative is chosen, the public should seek mitigation of all unavoidable environmental impacts as well as restitution for any community resources that were harmed, such as parkland.

Realistically, how likely is it that the Port Authority would consider an alternative not presented by the Port Authority?

Carriero: It is a very steep climb, but after Amazon, we have to have faith. It is not very likely since it has already spent millions getting to this point.

Dulong: The decision maker in this case is actually the Federal Aviation Administration. If a feasible alternative exists, the FAA is bound by law to consider it. If there truly is a better alternative, then it is up to us New Yorkers and our elected representatives to demand the best result for the region with the least impact on our communities.

Wouldn’t bus rapid transit (one of the alternatives) also have some environmental impact?

Carriero: The only alternative that would not seem to have any environmental impact is “no build.” It is a question of lesser impact. Even Letitia James recognized that bus service is a better alternative.

Dulong: Environmental impacts of all alternatives should be evaluated before any is chosen. Each alternative could have environmental impacts. What’s important is determining which alternative’s benefits most outweigh its impacts so it is truly the best option for all New Yorkers.

When do individuals have a chance to start receiving payments for the damages to their homes?

Carriero: Whenever they reach a deal with PANYNJ, but it is most advisable to wait until the project is complete to assess the full extent of damage, unless emergency repairs are needed.