Dreams of taking the N to LaGuardia


As I’m in Philadelphia for a few days this week, I’m not going to be around to cover all of the breaking subway news and snow service watch. I did, however, want to make sure that some fresh content finds its way to the site, and I’ll be running a few of my archived pieces. I first ran this look at a proposed subway line to LaGuardia back in January. After this week’s blizzard, the airport has reopened, but subway service to LaGuardia remains but a dream.

The Fiorello H. LaGuardia Airport in Queens is one of the nation’s most infuriating urban airports. It is so close to midtown and Manhattan’s Central Business District that a commuter in a hurry could make the trip in 30 minutes. Yet, it’s so far away because congestion frequently creates trips to Queens that last an hour and 30 minutes. The only public transit option to the airport is a packed and slow bus that, on a good day, goes from 125th St. and Lexington to the airport in a half an hour.

Over the last few decades, city officials have become quite intimate with the problems plaguing LaGuardia, and many have tried to fix it. The N train, whose northern terminus is less than three miles away from the LaGuardia terminals, is so tantalizing close to the airport and yet so far away.

Last week, in his “Why Train” segment, NBC 4’s Andrew Siff posted just this question. “What about the train to LGA?” asks Siff. In a one-minute piece, he mentioned how, 12 years ago, city and MTA officials were heavily invested in a plan to extend the N to LaGuardia, but in the face of other pressing transit needs and widespread community opposition, the agency eventually shelved this much needed link to LaGuardia.

So what then were the plans that engendered widespread community outrage and still cause politicians to chime in now and then, nearly a decade after the MTA discarded the idea? Let’s hop in the Wayback Machine and explore some Giuliani-Era transit developments.

The plans to extend the N to LaGuardia first came to light in 1998 as city officials recognized the need to build better access to the airports. As part of a $1.2 billion package with funding coming from the MTA, the Port Authority and the city, Giuiliani put forth a plan to build an airtrain to JFK and extend the subway to LaGuardia. The JFK line — built over preexisting rights-of-way — survived. The LaGuardia plans, obviously, did not.

The first and biggest problem the city faced in Queens came about because of the proposed routes. The preferred route would have extended the N along 31st St. north onto Con Edison’s property at the edge of Astoria and then east along 19th Ave. to the Marine Air Terminal. The MTA also considered an eastward extension along Ditmars Boulevard, a plan to reroute LaGuardia-bound N trains from Queensboro Plaza through the Sunnyside rail yard and along the eastern edge of St. Michael’s Cemetary to what Newsday called “elevated tracks parallel to the Grand Central Parkway.” A barely-acknowledged fourth route would have seen trains head east via Astoria Boulevard.

On the surface, these plans seem no worse than building the Second Ave. Subway through densely populated neighborhoods on the East Side. In Queens, however, the MTA would have had to build a spur line off a pre-existing elevated structure, and all of the plans called for the train to LaGuardia to run above ground through significant portions of Astoria. So while airport access ranked tops amongst Queens residents transit expansion wishlist, no one wanted to see Astoria further scarred by elevated structures.

The Daily News termed the opposition response NAMBYism — Not Above My Backyard — and nearly every single Queens politician opposed the idea. Some preferred the Sunnyside alternative, but at the time, NYCDOT said plans to widen the Grand Central Parkway would interfere with the train proposal. Others called upon an extension from Long Island City to skirt the borough from 21st St. along the East River to the airport. Still others preferred a longer Willets Point extension of the LIRR to the airport.

Peter Vallone exemplified the opposition. “Extending the elevated track will cause unnecessary hardship to residents and businesses in the area,” the City Council member said in 1999. “The MTA wants to go their way, not our way.”

In the end, despite opposition, political support for the plan from City Hall continued well into the 21st Century. With the backing of Mayor Guiliani and Queens Borough President Clare Shulman, the MTA’s 2000-2004 Five-Year Capital Plan included $645 million for the LaGuardia subway link, and even though a $17 million planning study was the project’s only expense, in late 2002, Mayor Bloomberg threw his weight behind the LaGuardia extension as a key post-9/11 revitalization plan.

Finally, in mid-2003, the Queens communities won the battle as the MTA announced plans to shelve the airport extension. With money tight after 9/11 and Lower Manhattan on the radar, then-MTA Chair Peter Kalikow said that the agency’s attention had turned to the JFK Raillink from Lower Manhattan, another plan that never materialized, and that the agency was prioritizing the 7 Line Extension, the East Side Access Plan and the Second Ave. Subway over the LaGuardia N train extension. “LaGuardia is a good project, but you have to prioritize,” Elliot Sander, then at NYU, said. “In terms of political support from City Hall, Albany and Washington, it’s moved back in the queue.”

And so in the end, we sit here in 2010 with the same travel options to LaGuardia as we have always enjoyed (or suffered through). The M60 remains the best public transportation option, and the MTA is in no position to take another crack at sending the subway to the airport. Oh, what could have been.

Categories : Subway History

43 Responses to “Dreams of taking the N to LaGuardia”

  1. John says:

    I know this is a rerun, but I don’t consider the M60 to be the best transit option to LGA. I’ve taken that and it’s not terrible, but I think the Q33, Q47, and Q72 are better options (depending on exactly where and when you’re making the trip).

  2. I’ve done both, and there’s no way the Q buses with their constant starts-and-stops through side streets are better than the M60 out of Astoria.

    • John says:

      Obviously it depends where you’re coming from, but I think if you’re coming from Midtown the Q’s are marginally better. Yeah they’re slow, but so is the M60, and you’re not going very far (from the 7 line to LGA).

  3. Larry Littlefield says:

    It is also the case that the Port Authority proposed, in exchange for a ticket surcharge, to run the Airtrain from JFK past Jamaica and LaGuardia to a subway adjacent terminal in Long Island City, mostly above the BQE.

    But in the aftermath of the deep (worse than now in the Northeast) early 1990s recession, New Jersey insisted that PATH fares and Port Authority tolls be kept far below subway fares and TBTA tolls, and New York Governors went along with it.

    Profits from the New York airports were diverted to keep fares and tolls low for New Jersey, and the Airtrain was cutback. Years later, Port Authority fares and tolls were increased so that “cross harbor transportation” once again broke even, but there was no payback.

    LaGuardia passengers still pay the surcharge, but get nothing.

    The best solution left would be a dedicated bus from Astoria Boulevard to LaGuardia. The M60 often gets held up in Manhattan or on the Triboro Bridge.

    • Don Anon says:

      Profits from the New York airports were diverted to keep fares and tolls low for New Jersey . . . .

      Umm, could you cite to any authority to support that assertion?

      • Larry Littlefield says:

        There was a widely cited analysis of the Port Authority budget by the Dept. of City Planning and OMB at the time. I don’t know if it exists anywhere in electronic form.

  4. Glenn says:

    The really crazy thing is not that LGA is not linked to the subway but that it is not linked to the Northeast corridor Amtrak line that cuts through Astoria but doesn’t stop. An Amtrak station would be just the sweetener to generate local interest as it would open up a wealth of travel opportunities to local residents that might not fly often but would love a quick way of getting to Philly, DC or Boston. And the only way to justify the Amtrak stop would be to connect it to both LGA and the Subway system.

    Astoria could be a regional Hub instead end of the line but my guess is it just wants to be a sleepy suburb.

  5. Ralph Wright says:

    Why is an extension of the Air Train from Jamaica Station still not considered as a possibility? It would connect travellers to both the Subway system and the LIRR. It would also allow for a direct connect between JFK and LGA which is greatly needed, particularly for those coming off overseas flights. The extension of the Air Train along Van Wyck and Grand Central would be less expensive than an extension of the N line.

    • Brandon says:

      I agree, people have turned against Airport connectors, but this one is there, its not going to be converted into a subway line anytime soon, and it would be a hell of a lot more useful if it connected to both airports, and made it possible to actually go from one to the other in a reasonable amount of time.

    • Alon Levy says:

      There’s no way you could put LGA, Jamaica Station, and JFK on one line. Thus the only way it’s possible to provide service on all three markets – LGA-JFK, JFK-Jamaica, LGA-Jamaica – is to cut the frequency to each market.

      On top of that, the LGA-JFK market is tiny. People who change flights can keep taking connecting flights out of JFK.

      • Don Anon says:

        Why do they have to be “on one line”? AirTrain LGA would run to Jamaica, as would AirTrain JFK. Passengers transferring between the two airports could do so via Jamaica, but that’s not the principal benefit. The goal is to create a transportation hub with easy access to both airports (I agree that the the demand for a LGA-JFK ride is relatively small).

        • Henry says:

          I’m curious as to why anyone would want to go all the way to Eastern Queens and transfer to a train going back to Western Queens.
          There’s no way that anyone would ride that – unless you live in Queens, it would be a longer journey. Also, it’s not particularly cost effective.

        • Alon Levy says:

          Passengers transferring between the two airports like pain so much they’re probably connecting through some S&M dungeon in Manhattan.

          As for a Jamaica-LGA connection, ask yourself whether business travelers, who prefer LGA for its proximity to Manhattan, will have the slightest interest in detouring through Jamaica. Even the JFK-Jamaica connection has pitiful ridership, around 4 million a year, and that’s for service that’s faster than taking a taxi to Manhattan.

  6. AlexB says:

    I don’t understand what the MTA was thinking when this was first proposed. No one wants a new elevated line in their neighborhood. I think it’s a little silly because new elevated lines like the air train to JFK can be built much higher over the street, with much more widely spaced supports, and in ways that minimize sounds.

    LaGuardia mass transit access should be a simple problem to solve: a 3 mile shuttle over the Grand Central Parkway with stations at LaGuardia terminals and the Astoria Blvd stop on the N train. This could even be combined with a handful of N express trains using the third track on the Astoria line, timed to transfer with the new airtrain. The NIMBY’s wouldn’t have that much to complain about as the GCP is already terrible. If it were built well, it could be extended to Flushing, which would be a major benefit to the big business district there, and the soon-to-be business district in Willets Point.

    I think the real problem with this whole idea (or maybe a reason it will get done) is that LaGuardia is ancient and outdated and will probably be demolished sometime in the next 15 years. How can you know where to build the stations if you don’t know where the terminals will be?

    In the meantime, the M60 is NOT the best mass transit option to LaGuardia. This is:
    Just because it’s private doesn’t mean it’s not mass transit.

    • Jerrold says:

      How do YOU know that LaGuardia will be demolished sometime in the next 15 years?
      Why, is there money there to demolish and rebuild an existing facility, when the money is so tight for all of the other new projects that are already in progress?

      • AlexB says:

        I don’t know they are going to tear it down, but I’ve been to LaGuardia enough times to know it’s time. Parts of it have the appearance of a 1940s hangar as you drive by on the GCP. Compared with some of the nice new airports that have been built in the US over the last 20 years, LaGuardia feels third world in comparison. Also, it’s not that big compared to Newark or JFK; replacing it could be done in stages without massive cost.

    • MaximusNYC says:

      With all NYC area airports handling huge numbers of flights, and expected to handle more in the future, there’s no way in hell the Port Authority is going to close one of them.

      • Henry says:

        expected to handle more in the future

        THat’s precisely the point. LaGuardia is an old, cramped airport; they need a new terminal or something to help relieve capacity and replace the old one.
        They’re demolishing and rebuilding terminals at JFK right now; I see no reason why that can’t happen at LaGuardia.

  7. John-2 says:

    Any extension of the N past it’s terminal right now is going to require dropping the line back underground before Astoria Boulevard, since Astoria residents are going to balk at one inch of new construction above ground beyond the Ditmars terminal. Once the line gets close to the Marine Air Terminal and the rest of LGA, then a cheaper above-ground route could be built (and, Peter Vallone to the contrary, you can’t put the entire Astoria line underground because it would leave the Flushing line completely isolated from the rest of the system, and the elevated track currently shares the section of Northern Blvd. where the E/M/R tracks from Queens Plaza merge with the F coming from the 63rd Street tunnel, with the future LIRR Grand Central connection one level below. Good luck trying to thread another underground line through that mess).

  8. Henry says:

    We know how to build decent looking elevated structures – look at the Skytrain in Vancouver. It’s not too hard to soundproof an elevated rail structure either. I don’t see what the problem is, because it’s not like Astoria has a “view” or anything.

  9. al says:

    If we’re going to get something built to LaGuardia Airport (LGA), its gonna have to be cheap.

    Option A)
    Airtrain (or another automated train system) from 69st (7) above the BQE/CSXT north then east above Grand Central Parkway to LGA.
    All train options include at least a section below grade between 82nd St/Ditmars Blvd and 86th St due to height issues with landing aircraft.

    Option B)
    Airtrain (or another automated train system) from Astoria Blvd (N, Q) east above Grand Central Parkway to LGA.

    Option C)
    Airtrain (or another automated train system) from Willets Pt-Mets (7 train/LIRR Port Washington) north and west above the parking lot and Grand Central Parkway to LGA.

    Train options would need foundations designed to deal with the weak soils found under the airport.

    Option D)
    BRT from Midtown to LGA. Priority Crosstown Bus Lane at 59th st hitting all north south lines. Bus Lane on the Queensboro Bridge, and Northern Blvd. Route between Northern Blvd and LGA can vary due to traffic.

    Option E)
    BRT (short) from Astoria Ave (N,Q) or (long) E125th St (Metro North, 4,5,6) to LGA.

    Option F)
    BRT from 61st St Woodside (7, , LIRR) to 74th St Broadway (7, E, F, M, R) to LGA.

    • Henry says:

      A really is not a real option because 69th St is a local station – travelers may skip the station unknowingly.
      B is not a great option either, because the NIMBYs in Astoria hate anything elevated (even though there are working examples of quiet elevated systems)
      C has the problem of being longer than the existing options – why go to Eastern Queens and back to LGA when you could just take the M60?
      D, E, and F have the problem of the existing M60 – slowed down by bridge traffic, and filled with crosstown commuters (unless premium fares were charged, and that worked so well with the Train to the Plane)

      • al says:

        As with options A, B, and C, elevated guideways were an issue with the JFK Airtrain. Locals politicos and community leaders objected to the possible noise associated with elevated lines built for the BMT and IRT service. The Port Authority arranged a visit to the Vancouver SkyTrain for local politicians of the areas along the line. After the visit, they were onboard with the plan.

        Maybe the Port Authority needs to arrange another series of visits to state of the art automated systems to demonstrate quiet operations and even architectural possibilities. The guideways can operate over the existing highway and rail ROW. Such a system wouldn’t cast shadows over properties like the Astoria Elevated structure does. And it is possible to outfit the guideway with low cost mirrors to virtually eliminate any shadow.

        Option C has the advantage of interfacing directly with the LIRR, is close to Flushing, any development at Willet Pt. The station 3 platforms & 6 tracks of which 2 platforms & 4 tracks are unused. With the opening of East Side Access, there can service to Willets Pt-Mets train on the LIRR Port Washington from the East Side (Grand Central) and West Side (Penn Station). This plan also has the advantage of copious space over city/state property (large rail yards, parking lots, large highway interchanges). In this sense, it would resemble the JFK AirTrain.

        It also has the possibility of building part of the guideway (over 3000 ft long) over the over Flushing Bay. It would likely be more expensive (barge mounted pile/pier/column installers and over water guideway installation), but cut WAY down on NIMBY, shorten total track length, eliminate 2 or 3 curves and shorten travel time.

        D, E, and F BRT options include BRT upgrades to the street. These would include long stretches of enforced Bus Only Lanes (including on the Queensboro Bridge) and preferential light sequencing. These would increase travel speeds for LGA and other buses.

        • Henry says:

          A and B are not real solutions – A connects to a slow, crowded subway service and B will be slowed down by lawsuits from NIMBYs.
          My problem with C is not that it’s a horrible interchange point or anything: the station is just too far away to be a useful connection. Most travelers going to LaGuardia do not hail from Queens; they want to go to Midtown. 7 train services to Willets take about 45 minutes on a good day (and that’s when the expresses are running). LIRR service at Penn is also mostly peak-hour, so that wouldn’t be reliable. The Airtrain route in C would not be a very good improvement over the existing M60 in terms of journey times.
          D, E, and F would be filled with crosstown commuters and has the problem of the M60 – how do you get luggage on board a crowded bus?
          I personally don’t see why it has to be an Airtrain-type system – wouldn’t light rail suffice? A light rail route with local stops in Astoria and Elmhurst would both connect airport travelers and provide a decent local service in expanding neighborhoods.

          • al says:

            Option A is 20 min to Grand Central on 7. Transfer to N/Q at Queensboro Plaza and its 15-20 min trips to E59th and Lexington Ave. Its also 2 stops from LIRR Woodside Station. There can be a 600ft long corridor with moving sidewalks + elevators to the E,F,M,R at 74th St-Broadway. The E,F are 20 min to Midtown, 30 min to Downtown on 8th Ave. It’d likely be faster than a NY Airport Service Bus and comparable to taxi from Midtown to LGA for most of the day due to traffic.

            As for crowding, I ride the 7 and Queens Blvd lines frequently. There is room on the trains at specific cars, due to transfer patterns and station staircase locations, even during rush hr. The morning ride to Queens has high train frequency and lots of room available (to the point of 1/2 seats available at the ends). The same happens in the opposite direction in the evenings. The high transfer volumes at 74th St-Broadway allow for people to get on the first 4 cars of the 7 to Manhattan, and the rear end of the train at 69th St Southbound has room.

            As for option B, what needs to happen is for project champions to convince the community leaders and local politicos. It is what happened with the AirTrain. They had their NIMBY’s. The Port Authority had to convince Howard Beach, Ozone Park, and Jamaica residents the system was much more benign than they expected and succeeded.

            Like you said, slowed by lawsuits. This is a reality, and to get things done, we need to face reality head on, but pragmatically. Start by calling for town/community meetings, and bring a large white erase board to jot down the objections to such a system. It would be part of getting local residents involved and thus invested in the project. The objections tend to beak down to disruption, noise, vibration, and aesthetic aspects during construction, and operation. Demonstrate (show them live and in real world) methods and technologies to mitigate issues and allay these concerns. Maybe throw in sweeteners; perhaps locally sourced labor and finished materials, or hire operations staff from local population, or a training program in green and community sensitive/socially conscious construction. Go the extra mile. It worked with the JFK AirTrain. After doing all this, the last holdouts tend to be people who can’t bear to have anything change around them.

            With Option C, with the opening of East Side Access, the LIRR has the capacity to run 2 car shuttles to the station from NY Penn and Grand Central, as well as space at the station to store them at Willets Pt.

            BRT options D,E,F could be called Airport Express buses, as it would be one in Queens. Fares would be the same ($2.25).

            Option D would run with BRT buses (maybe as far as onto Northern Blvd, which got a NYC DOT corridor study and maybe slated for BRT anyway) in those lanes to keep non airport customers to a minimum. Another way is to run the non airport BRT out of the terminal in Manhattan 30sec to 1min before the Airport Express to clear the stops of many of the non airport customers.

            Option E would run as express bus over the same route as M60. There could be a 2 or 3 tier bus over that route: Airport Express, Limited/BRT, Local. The Limited/BRT could take customers off the airport express at 2 key areas Astoria Blvd Station, and along 125th St.

            Option F has only 2 stops outside of the airport: 61st-Woodside and 74th St-Broadway. it would have very very few non airport customers.

            It can be light rail, or an interesting road wheel + rail wheel hybrid. The AirTrain is a reference point.

    • Alon Levy says:

      There’s zero upside to painting SBS lanes for airport buses instead of for local city buses. If Albany permits a seventh SBS route, it should not be oriented for airport service, but for complementing the subway in a better way; I’d vote for 125th, or QB.

      • al says:

        Local and non airport BRT are intrinsic parts of the Airport Express BRT options. They alleviate possible crowding, leaving space for LGA customers.

    • Peter says:

      Fantasy Option G) New crosstown subway around 86th Street, new tunnel to Astoria, local stop at Astoria Blvd and 12th street, connect with Astoria/Hoyt N, run above ground along Grand Central Parkway, two or three local stops between Astoria/Hoyt and LGA, stops at LGA, stop at Willets Point, run underground via Northern Blvd or Roosevelt Avenue into Flushing.

      *And* AirTrain from Jamaica to LGA – Long Islanders use it, too.

  10. drosejr says:

    Interesting timing with this article, as the FTA just gave $1.25MM to the MTA/NYC for a LaGuardia Airport Corridor Study. I think this is probably for Bus Rapid Transit/Select Bus Service in the Jackson Heights/Flushing areas, though, so unclear how much of this would actually touch LGA itself.

  11. James says:

    Wow, this is depressing. With London about to rollout ‘Crossrail’ in a few years — which will make the cost of a high-speed journey to Central London less than 10 pounds (the current — very cheap — Picadilly Line service is not all that bad either and rich folks can always spring for the 15 minute journey on Heathrow Express) — New York just falls more and more behind.

    This is an embarrassment and an outrage.


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