‘Will there really be 9,000 daily riders? Does a cost benefit analysis justify investing $2.05 billion for this project, long-championed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who will no longer be in office come next month?’

Office of the Governor

Rendering of the envisioned AirTrain.

In our new COVID-19 world, all transportation agencies have to reevaluate anticipated future ridership growth projections. Anticipated ridership figures for the LaGuardia AirTrain, for instance, need to be updated. Will there really be 9,000 daily riders? Does a cost benefit analysis justify investing $2.05 billion for this project, long-championed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who will no longer be in office come next month?  

More people are going to continue working from home on a part or full-time basis. There will be fewer face-to-face meetings and conferences, with increased usage of Zoom. The growing crime rate, increased homeless population, higher taxes and the decline in quality of life in New York City will make working, shopping, dining, visiting or living in Manhattan even less desirable.  Many Manhattan-based corporations are considering relocating employees to satellite offices in the surrounding suburbs. Fewer tourists and business people will be flying into the Big Apple. The same is true for those from out of town needing to conduct business in the city. As more middle and upper class residents continue to move out of New York, there may be fewer travelers using LaGuardia Airport. 

A “one seat ride” for those traveling to and from LaGuardia isn’t born out by the facts. There will be conflicts at both the Mets-Willets Point subway and LIRR stations. Why would travelers with luggage and those with children attempt to squeeze onto already pre-COVID-19 packed rush hour subway and Port Washington branch LIRR trains? These same trains frequently have riders standing in the aisles during peak hours. It is worse when trains are canceled or combined due to service disruptions. People attending Met games and concerts at Citi Field, the U.S. Open or other events at Arthur Ashe stadium also use this station, as well as those traveling to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park and Queens Zoo.

You will need seven minutes travel time on the AirTrain between LaGuardia Airport to reach the LIRR and the subway at the Mets-Willets Point station. Travel time on the LIRR from Willets Point to Penn Station, or future East Side Access to Grand Central Terminal, is 17 minutes. Factor in up to seven minutes to wait for a connection at CitiField for the LIRR or No. 7 subway. The new LIRR at Grand Central Terminal, consisting of four platforms and eight tracks at this facility, are many stories below ground. It may require five to 10 minutes to midtown street level.  The 7 train subway to Manhattan is a minimum of 25 minutes via the express line (which only runs inbound in the morning and outbound in the evening, with no other service except for major events at Citi Field) and 30 minutes on the local.

The LIRR will require six trains hourly in each direction to support 10 minute headways to meet the promised 30-minute travel time from LaGuardia Airport to midtown Manhattan. Even with Positive Train Control, it may not be possible for the Port Washington LIRR branch to accommodate these additional trains during rush hour. Off-peak service on the Port Washington LIRR Branch service was recently reduced to once every hour. The LIRR would have to add five additional trains hourly to meet the promised 30 minutes.  

Neither Governor Cuomo, Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton, former MTA Chairman Pat Foye, LIRR President Phil Eng and former NYC Transit Interim President Sarah Feinberg have ever revealed what the additional operating and/or capital costs would be to provide supporting LIRR and subway service. No one has identified the funding sources to pay for increasing frequency of service.

Only Governor Cuomo, Port Authority, their consultants, along with labor unions and construction contractors who would benefit by this project, continue to be in denial that a 30 minute trip is unrealistic. 

In 2014, Cuomo said the cost for the LaGuardia AirTrain was $450 million, with a completion date of 2019. The Port Authority has budgeted $2.05 billion within the $37 billion 2017-2026 10 Year Capital Plan for the project, with a completion date of 2025. This doesn’t include several hundred million more needed to relocate the NYC Transit Flushing Casey Stengel Bus Depot. There is no funding within the MTA’s $51 billion 2020 – 2024 plan to pay for this cost. No one can predict the final cost and completion date. Port Authority’s state of good repair, safety and security projects clearly should be higher priority than any system expansion project such as the LaGuardia AirTrain. Extension of NYC Transit’s N and W subway lines from Astoria has always made more sense. This would provide a direct, one-seat ride without having to change at Mets-Willets Point.

The AirTrain has something in common with other transportation projects, such as the $11.2 billion plan to bring LIRR East Side Access to Grand Central Terminal, the $11 billion Gateway Tunnel, $10 billion Port Authority Bus Terminal, $10 billion Cross Harbor Freight Tunnel, $6.9 billion Second Avenue Subway Phase 2 and others that elected officials and transit agency CEOs never want to acknowledge. As any major capital project advances through design and engineering, estimated project costs continue to rise. Responses to any construction procurement can come in above the project engineers’ estimate. Any final project cost upon completion could increase based upon a number of factors, like responses to bids, change orders during construction due to last minute changes in scope or unforeseen site conditions.

Since 2001, the total direct cost for MTA East Side Access has grown from $3.5 billion to $4.3 billion in 2003, $6.3 billion in 2006, $8.4 billion in 2012, $10.8 billion in 2014 and $11.2 billion in 2018. It could easily end up $12 billion or more when finally completed. This number does not include $4 billion more in what the MTA calls “East Side Access Readiness Projects,” like a $2.6 billion Main Line Third Track, $387 million Ronkonkoma Double Tracking, $450 million Jamaica Station Capacity Improvements and $44 million Great Neck Pocket Track, just to name a few. They are all carried off line from the official project budget even though they are essential to the implementation of East Side Access to Grand Central Terminal.

Larry Penner is a transportation advocate, historian and writer who previously worked for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office.