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.

12 thoughts on “LaGuardia AirTrain Faces Questions Over Route and Rationale

  1. East Elmhurst and neighboring residents, #7 subway and Port Washington Long Island Rail Road riders along with taxpayers have good reasons to be concerned about future impacts of the LaGuardia Air Train. Consider the project history to date.

    I previously wrote that the anticipated final potential cost for La Guardia Airtrain could end up several hundred million dollars above Governor Andrew Cuomo’s original 2014 estimated figure of $450 million. I also predicted that the promised completion date by 2019 was unrealistic. Both have proven to be true. The original Port Authority 2017 – 2026 capital budget plan lists this project at $1 billion. It was subsequently revised to $1.5 billion. Costs will be further refined as the project progresses thru the environmental review process, preliminary and final design, award of construction contracts followed by change orders to the base contracts during construction due to last minute changes in scope or unforeseen site conditions.

    Four years have passed with little progress to date. There are no environmental documents or any preliminary design and engineering efforts necessary to validate construction costs. The environmental review process which recently got under way will be more complicated. More time will be needed to look at new proposed concepts of building over the Flushing Bay Promenade or Flushing Bay. Using one of these concepts versus the original option of using the Grand Central Parkway median could easily add several hundred million to construction costs.

    NYC is spending $200 million on a clean up project to bring back wetlands on the shore and upgrade the sewer system for Flushing Bay. Much of this work will be performed on the same waterfront shoreline as the proposed LaGuardia Air Train. How much of this environmental remediation work will have repeated due to construction of the LaGuardia Air Train? Will this issue be dealt with in the Federal Aviation Administration Environmental Impact Statement? Are the two projects compatible? Will taxpayers be stuck paying twice for the same work?.

    Cuomo’s belief that this will provide a “one seat ride” for those traveling to and from LaGuardia Airport isn’t born out by the facts. There will be significant conflicts at both the Mets Willets Point subway and LIRR stations. Why would travelers with luggage and those with children attempt to squeeze in on already packed rush hour # 7 subway and Port Washington branch LIRR trains? Cuomo wants frequent direct LIRR service on the Port Washington branch between Penn Station, Grand Central Terminal and Mets Willets Point station to support his $1.5 billion LaGuardia Air Train. This will require six trains per hour in each direction to support ten minute head ways. It is needed to fulfill his promised 30 minute travel time from LaGaurdia Airport to midtown Manhattan. Even with implementation of Positive Train Control, it may not be possible for the Port Washington LIRR branch to accommodate these additional trains during rush hour. In 2014. he promised that the LaGuardia Airtrain would be up and running within 5 years by 2019. Now he has said by 2021. Even this date appears unrealistic. Completion of the environmental review, preliminary and final design and engineering may require several more years. You will be lucky if construction begins in 2022 and completed by end of 2025.

    There is no room to run additional trains in or out of Penn Station during rush hours via the East River tunnels with connections via the Port Washington LIRR branch. This conflicts with Cuomo’s promise to have the LIRR provide frequent service between Penn Station and Mets Willets Point LIRR Station. What about service from Grand Central Terminal once LIRR East Side Access is achieved in 2023. Three of four East River tunnels running inbound during a.m. and outbound p.m. rush hours have tight spacing between trains. One tunnel is shared by the LIRR, New Jersey Transit and Amtrak for reverse train movements with equally tight spacing during rush hours. There is no Penn Station platform capacity to accommodate any additional trains during rush hour. If one of the four tunnels is temporarily out of service, the result is numerous delays and cancellation of trains.

    Recent implementation of Communication Based Train Control followed by implementation for the Flushing #7 subway in December 2018 (it was suppose to have been completed in October 2016) may only result in increasing the number of trains per hour from 28 to 30 during rush hour. Actual 100% project completion which would include final inspection, acceptance, receipt of all asset maintenance plans, release of retainage and final payment to the contractor will not be reached until April 2019. After that,NYC Transit no longer has any other opportunity for increasing rush hour capacity.

    A one seat ride could be accomplished by extending the N & W subway lines from their current terminus at Astoria/Ditmars Blvd to LaGuardia Airport. This previously died due to local community opposition.

    To build a train to the plane within five years for $1.5 billion is a planners dream. It will be a nightmare for both taxpayers and riders. Count on cost overruns in the hundreds of millions and multiyear delays in construction before reaching beneficial use.

    (Larry Penner is a transportation historian, advocate and writer who previously worked 31 years for the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office).

    • Please send your comments to the FAA at LGAaccessEIS.com/formal-comment. The FAA wants public input on the Port Authority’s preferred plan and they also welcome and suggestions for alternative plans. The deadline to submit is Monday at 5pm (Jun 17).

  2. housekeeping: “LAG” is the IATA airport code for La Guaira Airport in La Guaira, Venezuela. The summary of panelist remarks uses “LGA”, the correct airport code for LsGuardia.

    substance: What this story omits — I don’t know if it was discussed at the event: access to LaGuardia airport for its thousands of employees. It’s alluded to in James Carriero’s reference to “employee parking”, but assuming airport employees drive to work is the worst irresponsibility by any measure. Extending the Astoria line’s service (currently, the “N” and “W” lines) is far and away the best alternative for the most airport users; dedicated bus lanes with physical barriers and increased bus service is a distant second.

    • Thanks red bike, for the heads up on the airport code; correction made.

      And yes, the issue of employee parking did come up at the event. There was displeasure at the possibility that some of the plans were being shaped around new or increased parking space for workers.

    • You should send an official comment to the FAA and explain your ideas for extending the N/W line and your secondary plan of improving bus service. The FAA is in a scoping period and it will take comments until 5pm on Monday (June 17th). Please explain why the airtrain proposal is a bad idea in your view. All comments should be submitted at LGAaccessEIS.com/formal-comment.

  3. The pragmatic option is to have the Port Authority run an Air Train to the N/W Astoria terminus. Pending plans for East Bronx service to Penn Station means an additional investment in a Northeast Corridor transfer station above the Ditmars Blvd station would increase this scheme’s regional utility exponentially.

    The selling point for any airport is it’s proximity to the Central Business District. Any La Guardia AirTrain plan must address that. While a Willets Point destination will benefit Citi Field, The US Open and Queens Museum patrons, the bulk of the traffic will be heading west.

    Extending the N/W train to LaGuardia makes the most sense using existing infrastructure. Northern Queens could use the additional service. However, under current rules, the Passenger Facility Charge levied an air passengers cannot be used for this.

    [If nothing else fix the “JRK” typo in the opening paragraph]

    • Please expand on your thoughts and tell the FAA why you believe the subway extension plan is the best idea. The FAA is looking for public comments until June 17th at 5pm. Comments can be sent via the LGAaccessEIS.com/formal-comment website. There are at least sixteen alternative plans under consideration.

  4. So many Manhattan-centric comments above! Why should Manhattan be the only CBD? All transit projects should serve Wall St?
    I am an Asian American living in Downtown Flushing. We are an inclusive community. We welcome whites, blacks, hispanics and any type of development that don’t exclude people. We have already built many mixed residential/commercial buildings here. I support the Willets Point Airtrain, and it’s better to extend it to Flushing Main St station, and even better to expand the LGA airport so I don’t have to take bus to JFK for the Boeing 777s.

  5. I think a train would be great as it would reduce car traffic. A rapid bus serve no point. It get stuck in traffic and the street are already crowded by taxis.

    Based on other major airports around the world. Trains have significantly reduce traffic and have been more reliable then a bus.

    It would be great if the 7, N, W train stopped at LGA. As well as a direct train from LGA to JFK(or a ferries from LGA to JFK). This would cut traffic down on Van Wyck expressway and GCP.

    I would also say add a ferry from the airport to major stations at Manhattan, Brooklyn and Bronx. This would significantly cut traffic. It terrible to ever drive from bronx to catch the flight same as coming from Manhattan to catch a flight.

    This way a person can hop on the ferry from Bronx and reach LGA
    If the ferry goes down they have a train alternative.

    Would create jobs and cut traffic.

    • Please tell your ideas to the FAA at LGAaccessEIS.com/formal-comment. The FAA is looking for public comments on the Port Authority’s proposed plan until June 17th at 5pm. The ferry system and subway extension ideas are the kinds of things they want to hear about. They also want comments about potential problems with the airtrain and ideas for what to study during the upcoming environmental review.

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