For an airport so close to Midtown Manhattan, LaGuardia often seems very far away. The N and Q trains terminate tantalizingly close to the airport, and the 7 train seems to skirt right on by. But with no direct subway access, one of the nation’s busiest airports remains trapped on the wrong side of a bunch of roads, accessible only by cars, taxis or buses that slowly wind their way through local Queens streets.
The dearth of adequate transit options for the nearly 24 million passengers who pass through the airport isn’t for lack of trying. As I’ve written in the past, many wanted to bring the subway to LaGuardia, but intense NIMBYism and a high pricetag killed the project. Now, we’re left with five local buses, an array of private operators and surface transit. That might change soon.
For as long as the New York City Department of Transportation has focused on its so-called “bus rapid transit” plan, the LaGuardia-Elmhurst corridord has sat atop the priority list. New Yorkers long identified it as an area in need of better access, and city planners know that the area is underserved. Finally, DOT is getting around to studying the corridor.
I learned today — via Cap’n Transit’s post to Twitter — of this DOT web page touting the LaGuardia Airport Access Alternatives Analysis. The snazzy map up on top of this post came from that page in fact. Right now, the website is bare bones. In addition to the map, it features three paragraphs of text:
LaGuardia Airport is the only major airport in the New York metro area without a rapid transit connection, and much of western Queens lacks easy access to the subway for local travel. The idea of providing rapid transit for the airport and the surrounding community has been studied many times over the years, but nothing has ever been implemented.
The LaGuardia Airport corridor was identified as needing shorter term, lower cost transit improvements by area residents as part of the Bus Rapid Transit Phase II study in 2009. In particular, the area generates a high density of transit trips that are a long distance from the subway. The corridor is currently served by the M60,Q33, Q47, Q48 and Q72 bus routes, but service on these routes is often slowed by narrow streets and long dwell times.
With this in mind, DOT requested and received funding from the Federal Transit Administration to conduct a LaGuardia Airport Access Alternatives Analysis. The Alternatives Analysis began in May 2011, and will focus on implementable recommendations. The study will look at both airport trips and trips made by the many residents that live close to the airport. DOT will work closely with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and other City and State agencies throughout the study.
Essentially, two years after residents urged DOT to explore improving access to LaGuardia, the department is finally ready to begin that study. The process is going to be a slow one, and it will likely be at least two years before we see any real transportation improvements. In fact, according to DOT’s schedule, although this month will play host to the first public meeting, the selection of the “Locally Preferred Alternative” won’t happen until next May, and the agency anticipates implementing the initial recommendations sometime in 2013. Obvious transit improvements happen very slowly in New York City.
What then should we anticipate? Although the plans are rough sketches based upon public input from 2009, DOT will have to find a way to overcome the narrow streets and long dwell times. To that end, we’ll see buses focused on wider corridors, and we’ll see Select Bus Service-like improvements implemented. Pre-board fare payment is an obvious one, and while a Manhattan-to-LaGuardia route would be ripe for a truly dedicated lane, the city has not been able to overcome small but loud complaints concerning those types of beneficial travel lanes.
Essentially, earlier studies identified five potential routes, and each should see travel upgrades. The city would like to connect LaGuardia to Willets Point and the 7 in Flushing, the Jackson Heights hub at Roosevelt Avenue, Midtown Manhattan, 125th St. via a stop along the N/Q in Astoria and into the Bronx via Third or Webster Avenues. That’s the easy part. Getting the right improvements implementing on the ground will not, but DOT now has a chance to improve travel to and from a popular urban airport that has never been connected to the subway. It’s an opportunity the city can’t afford to let slip away yet again.