Office of the Governor

Rendering of the envisioned AirTrain.

As the MTA desperately pleads for a massive infusion of federal funds to help cover $8.9 billion in lost revenue as result of the COVID-9 pandemic, Governor Andrew Cuomo has designated the controversial LaGuardia Airtrain as one of his top, post COVID, infrastructure priorities. 

During a press conference last month, Cuomo announced that he will seek out federal stimulus aid from the Trump administration for the estimated $2 billion project, justifying it by stating that “there is no better time to build than right now [when] you need to renew and repair this country’s economy and its infrastructure.” 

COVID’s toll cited

Already opposed to the project because of plethora of concerns, community groups and local electeds are incensed that the governor is seeking funds for a legacy project when the community is still reeling from the emotional and financial toll of the pandemic. East Elmhurst and Corona are among the neighborhoods  hardest hit by COVID-19 

“I stand unequivocally against the Airtrain and I feel very strongly that it’s offensive to build what we’re told is a $2 billion boondoggle that will likely cost more money,” says State Sen. Jessica Ramos, whose district includes LaGuardia Airport. “It’s offensive in the face of the zipcode in my district that suffered the most deaths as a result of the pandemic–in the neighborhood that is starved for healthcare and public transportation. So to rub $2 billion in our faces like this is one of the most disrespectful actions someone can take.” 

With the neighborhoods near LaGuardia among some of the poorest and under-resourced communities in the city to have been impacted by the pandemic, Guardians of Flushing Bay, a local environmental group who has firmly opposed the project out of fear that it would further degrade as well as impede work on restoring the long polluted bay, believes that Coumo’s renewed push for the project is out of touch with the facts on the ground. 

“Our watershed communities—East Elmhurst, Corona, Jackson Heights, Flushing and College Point—have been some of the most impacted neighborhoods in NYC by the COVID 19 pandemic and ensuing economic fallout,” says Rebecca Pryor, Program Coordinator for Guardians of Flushing Bay. “We need the governor to commit to drastic investments in our social services to keep community members safe, fed and in their homes.”

James Mongeluzo of Sensible Way to LGA, a coalition group opposed to the Airtrain, goes even further by pointing out the community’s desperate need for improved health care infrastructure and transportation infrastructure.  

“East Elmhurst, a neighborhood directly impacted by the LGA AirTrain, does not have a doctor’s office or medical clinic. Federal money should be prioritized to address these issues and other spatial inequities, such as improved public transit, instead of the ill conceived AirTrain,” he says.

No more free money

Since the project’s inception in 2015, the Airtrain’s budget has ballooned from $450 million to over $2 billion. Envisioned to create a direct subway link to the airport, the monorail would span 1.5 miles, connecting LaGuardia Airport in East Elmhurst to the Willets Point 7 subway line and the Long Island Rail Road. A major selling point was that the project was to cost taxpayers very little, with most of the cost being covered by the Port Authority’s own revenue. 

Still, some public transit experts have criticized the project as a disingenuous transit option, pointing out that the AirTrain would be slower than the existing MTA buses. Improving bus times and reliability, they argue, would be a far more cost effective option. 

Two weeks prior to Coumo’s statements, the AirTrain plan seemed all but dead when the Port Authority announced that it was urging congress to provide $3 billion in funds as it struggles financially in the face of a 97-percent decline in airport traffic, forcing the agency to reconsider its existing  $20-billion capital plan. 

With the Port Authority in a financial tailspin and Coumo now seeking taxpayer money to foot the bill, community organizations such as the East Elmhurst based Ditmars Block Association, view any justification for the project as quickly evaporating. 

“In our view, a bad idea has just gotten worse. Initially, the governor promoted the project as a cost-free proposal for NY taxpayers, arguing that the full freight for the project would be paid by passenger facilities charges,” says Frank Taylor, President of the Ditmars Block Association. “That assertion no longer holds since LaGuardia-as well as other area airports-is experiencing a 90 percent drop in ridership as fears of COVID-19 keep most air travelers grounded.” 

Defending the spending

Despite community concerns, Lindsay Kryzak, Director of Corporate Communications for the Port Authority, finds the project to be vital to regions post pandemic recovery. 

“It continues to be the height of irresponsibility to not have a rail link to LaGuardia Airport, but that is not what our request is about,”she said. “ In addition to delivering 21st century transportation infrastructure, the capital construction plan will create tens of thousands of jobs, billions of dollars in contracting opportunities for M/WBEs and local businesses, and fuel over $20 billion in public and private investment in the region — key components of a strong recovery. It’s hard to believe anyone would want to undercut our ability to contribute to the recovery.”

The governor’s office did nor respond to City Limits request for comment. 

Determined to continue the fight, community stakeholders such as Pryor insist that if any project is to move forward, it should center the community’s needs above anything else.  

“If infrastructure development moves forward, prioritization must be given to transit equity and protection of our critical parkland before ignoring transit experts and pushing through the AirTrain,” she says.