Queens Rail Connections: La Guardia, Convention Center

By · Published in 2012

Behind Staten Island, Queens is the borough with the most potential for better rail service and with obvious connections as well. La Guardia Airport sits tantalizingly out of reach from the subway while the 7 line’s promise of service beyond Flushing has remained unrealized for decades. Service into and out of Brooklyn that doesn’t need to detour into Manhattan is inadequate, and transit to the eastern reaches of the county could be much faster.

Still, New York’s planners are dreaming big when it comes to Queens, and two projects that may rely, to varying degrees, on rail connections are on the table. First up is a plan from the Port Authority to replace La Guardia Airport’s Central Terminal Building. The agency released a request for information (PDF) last month, and The Journal profiled the planned upgrades late last week.

Essentially, the new terminal building will replace the 46-year-old structure that isn’t prepared for today’s modern airplanes. The Port Authority is planning a $3.6-billion construction effort that would commence in 2014 and wrap by 2021. Now, before we get our hopes up, the current project does not include a rail component simply because the Port Authority cannot control that element of the project, but while we often build without keeping future provisioning in mind, the Port Authority is requiring its bidders to do so. The RFI says:

While the Project scope does not include rail service, the new CTB shall be designed so as not to preclude future rail access. The design shall incorporate provisions for track alignment and connections compatible with current New York City plans for light and heavy rail, should future funding become available.

A faint glimmer of hope is better than nothing at all, but any such rail link would have to overcome extreme NIMBY opposition in Queens. If recent history is any indication, such a plan would involve a fight for the ages — if the money for a La Guardia subway connection ever materialized.

Across the borough, where plans to build a massive convention center are taking center stage, transit advocates are leery. As I noted last week, transit access to Ozone Park is rather sparse, and building a convention center at the Aqueduct site would raise significant transportation concerns. Transportation Nation’s Andrea Bernstein has more on the vague plan to provide express service from Manhattan to the Aqueduct:

One idea bandied about was that the MTA would run express trains along the A line. But that idea was tried once before — in the now-defunct “Plane to the Train.” That service was plagued by low ridership, and created hostility by setting up a service that whisked past waiting straphangers on the local platforms. “If one of their ideas is to create a convention express modeled after the JFK airport express, that’s going to be much harder to do than it was in the 1970?s and ’80?s,” the Straphangers’ Campaign’s Gene Russianoff said.

Russianoff noted that many neighborhoods along the A and C lines — including Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, and Bedford-Stuyvesant — have undergone rapid growth in recent years, and couldn’t withstand reductions in service.

But Bob Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association, which is backing the convention plan, thought adding express trains might be possible. Yaro also said the air train to JFK could be extended to Aqueduct, or the LIRR Rockaway Beach line could be brought back to life. Both plans would cost considerably more.

Extending the JFK air train seems likely but useless. To reach the air train still requires a significant amount of travel time to Jamaica on the E or Howard Beach on the A. Adding an Aqueduct stop wouldn’t improve Manhattan travel times. Reactivating the Rockaway Beach line would also be an expensive undertaking that would face opposition from residents who live along the old right-of-way and QueensWay advocates who want to turn the ROW into a park. Of course, the dollars remain an issue as well.

For now, then, as the MTA’s capital dollars are focused on Manhattan, these Queens’ projects will remain on paper. The La Guardia rail connection would be a vital link for the city while a convention center cannot sprout up in Ozone Park without speedier and more reliable rail service to Manhattan. Hopefully, those pushing these plans are paying attention.

Categories : Queens

57 Responses to “Queens Rail Connections: La Guardia, Convention Center”

  1. Christopher says:

    The more I think about this the more I think this convention center is really going to be in the airport cities model wWhere the primary audience won’t set foot in any other part of NY. They will fly into a big convention. Stay at big hotel nearby and that will be the extent of their NYC trip.. Perhaps someone will build condos for conventioneers that are frequently at the site. These types of developments that have sprung up near airports around the globe. It’s a fascinating and almost inherently placeless phenomenon as sociology goes. As for urbanism and development goes, it’s distressing. It’s shocking to me that the governor of the state can just decree a massive development within the borders of NYC and that be it. The balance of power between the state and city are all backward here.

    • Marc Shepherd says:

      Well, state government trumps city government just about everywhere, not just in New York, so there is nothing shocking about it. But I am not hearing any significant opposition from the city. If it all happens (that is a big IF), Queens would get a huge influx of capital and would become a premier business destination. Very few Queens politicians are likely to oppose that.

      The Javits has always been a white elephant; anything that replaces it is practically certain to be better. Obviously, there is something strange about demolishing the Javits after they just spent $500 million to renovate it, but if Genting is prepared to invest $3–4 billion in Queens, I would take that deal in a heartbeat.

      Regarding transit access, I don’t see any way of doing it without re-activating the Rockaway Branch. Super-express service on the IND line has already failed once, and I don’t see any way of re-introducing it. Cuomo has proven so far that he can cut through political B.S. when he really wants to get something done. This will be a test of his influence.

      • Bolwerk says:

        Cuomo has only done this in relatively narrow circumstances, particularly over bureaucracies he has direct control over – in the case of the state unions, it involved a blow that must have to some extent been softened by Paterson before 2010. Not to mention fiscal reality.

        With transit and the MTA, the power for change is still more in the legislature’s hand. I could see Cuomo effecting change if he wants, but he’d need to spend more political capital than he ever had to before to do it. And he doesn’t seem to think transit is a worthy subject anyway.

      • Alex C says:

        LIRR Rockaway + 1968 QB super-express plan.

        As for La Guardia, new AirTrain line. From Jamaica to LGA via Van Wyck and Grand Central Parkway, and LGA to N/Q trains via Grand Central Parkway to Astoria Blvd station.

        Problem solved. Now all we need is funding, the backing of the city and state, and the lawyers to squash the NIMBYs.

      • Christopher says:

        Actually state government is very often forbidden from handling local planning matters. I have never seen the state step into make decisions about local planning matters and I’ve lived in Illinois, Virginia. Tennessee, and California. If the state does want to do something, it is required to follow the planning requirements of the local jurisdiction. It’s a huge abuse of power here in NY state if this is typical.

        • Jeff says:

          The difference in this case is that both the land under the Javits Center and the Aqueduct are owned by New York State, not New York City. As such they hold jurisdiction over this matter.

        • Bolwerk says:

          Hmm, it’s probably almost never constitutionally forbidden. Most states just don’t do it, at least until local and state planning priorities fail to dovetail. Ohio quashed a light rail program for Cleveland(?) last year, for instance. Texas seems to come pretty close to outright forbidding state interference, but it doesn’t quite seem to do that either. I know some states don’t allow special legislation; I think Pennsylvania is one of them, but even they get around those rules by just making detailed criteria-based descriptions of places without actually naming them (for a simple example, all cities in the state with a population over 1 million would just be Philly).

          I think in NYS there are all these complicated sub-tiers of local government that have different powers over planning in general. Counties (state-level administrative units), cities, towns, villages – many with different powers devolved to them in different ways within each category. Hell, read the NYS local government handbook (PDF). NYC actually seems quite organized after you get a load of that. :-p

          To that end, I don’t think NYS is technically interfering with local planning here either; not directly anyway. They are simply financing a mega-project that has some implications for local planning, which is not that unusual outside of NYS.

      • Christopher A. says:

        One problem – any replacement of the Javits center should be TOTALLY privately funded, and have no financial assistance (direct or indirect)from NYS or NYC. If it is not, then we will pay for another white elephant that is not needed….

        I can see a few hotels spring up to service a new convention center near the airport. But how will the workers get there? I don’t see the A train having the needed capacity to bring workers to the site. And that area’s roads are jammed enough already.

        The big question is WHY? And the answer is simple – all politicians want impressive edifices to symbolize their term(s) of office. The Pharaohs built the pyramids, the Romans built the Circus Maximus, the Colosseum, and other imposing buildings, and we’re trying to build a gussied up PATH station at the WTC site, a gussied up Fulton Street station, and recapture the glory of a lost Penn Station in Manhattan. Does any of this make financial sense? No! But it does make sense when one looks at the egos of the politicians who sponsor these projects.

        • Jeff says:

          Clearly you’re not seeing the massive financial benefits from this.

          Tearing down the Javits Center would allow the state to lease the land to developers to build condos where the state collects part of the rent from tenants as the plan entails (ie Battery Park City). This will generate billions of new revenue for the state, which benefits EVERYBODY.

          The fact that Genting is willing to spend a few billion dollars to build a convention center to replace the Javits Center, build a bunch of hotels in the area, and drive up the Queens economy is a massive bonus to all this.

          The plan is win-win. The questions now are how to get people to this convention center and who pays for the improvements, and that’s what this blog post was about.

          • Bolwerk says:

            If such a benefit were to be accrued, it should benefit the city, not the state. And the first thing it should do is pay off the 7 Train extension and make sure there is a station at 41st Street.

          • Alon Levy says:

            If the Javits is such a drag, then tear it down without replacement. There’s no need to build a white elephant to replace another.

  2. Spencer K says:

    “…commence in 2014 and wrap in 2012”? I hope that’s a typo!

    • Yup. Supposed to say 2021. Fixed it now.

      • al says:

        Looking at preliminary concepts, I wonder if they can accommodate larger planes. The projected completion date is 2021. There could be an entire generation of aircraft developed before then that could make the rebuild functionally obsolete. The increasing fuel prices and limited landing slots at LGA will drive airlines towards larger planes to reduce cost per seat and increase total passenger count.

        There are several factors to consider, as low cost bus service and rail service (esp high speed) will draw away budget and regional travelers. However, there is aerodynamic research going on that will reduce landing and takeoff distances for airliners. Instead of aircraft with 100-250 passengers aboard (Boeing 737, 767, A320), you could have aircraft with 500+ passengers (Boeing 747, 777 and A340 A350 A380).

        • Bolwerk says:

          That’s all well and good, but how many of those routes will need planes carrying 500 people? I can’t imagine a plane to a middling airport like Syracuse needing anymore than a few dozen seats, and that’s more or less LaGuardia’s market. Even nominally large destinations like Denver don’t call for it, unless you grant a monopoly to one airline.

          Of course, a decent LD rail network would make flying to Syracuse from NYC obsolete, but that’s apparently off the table.

          • SEAN says:

            Actually airlines are shrinking seat capasity on most routes. The only way to bring 777s or 340s to LGA is to lower flight frequencies on many city pairs.

            Keep in mind that the regional jets are subcontracted & are not part of the main airline, plus they now handle nearly half of all commercial flying in the US.

          • al says:

            500+ would be the ceiling, but it would be greater than the 200+ on larger planes that regularly fly out of LGA. Its the gap between current aircraft capacity and jumbo jets that would allow for capacity expansion on domestic flights. The landing slots are limited, as are the hours that planes can take off. US population is growing by 1/3 over the next 30 yrs, and most of it is in the South and West, at distances that jets would beat HSR.

            • Bolwerk says:

              A ~33% increase in the U.S. population dispersed mostly between Virginia and Arizona isn’t going to call for vastly more flight capacity to any particular destination in that range – and probably about half that range is outside the range LaGuardia flights are presently even allowed to fly non-stop (~1500 miles and to Denver?). I didn’t mean to imply HSR was an alternative to those places, but I think Sean is right about the general trend toward smaller planes.

              Plus, I’d be wary about any population projection that far off. With higher energy prices all but assured, that factor alone probably means even places like Texas are not going to remain as low-cost as they presently appear to be. And even if that isn’t true, the feds will need to retain generous transfer payments to that region, which may not be so affordable in the future even if they keep soaking the northeast and California.

              • SEAN says:

                As fuel prices continue to rise you will notice something resembling the following – first frequencies on routes decrease, next the size of the planes used shrink & finally the routes get dropped altogether do to lack of profitability or demand for such service.

                Since cities in the west & southwest are further apart than the northeast, this could have a serious ecconomic impact. We are seeing this in Denver where where United is no longer able to compete against Frontier & Southwest on it’s bread & butter routes there.

                • Bolwerk says:

                  Well, I don’t know about that size thing. Airplane yield management strategies tend to be about maximizing per-seat revenue, which can be lower with a larger, fuller plane. If frequencies drop and demand stays the same, it wouldn’t be unlikely to see fewer flights but larger ones.

                  But either way, for now the trend is toward smaller planes, or at least that’s what Boeing apparently expects in the American market.

              • al says:

                The perimeter rule does not apply to Saturdays, and its being challenged by the ATA. There are also large planes that make flights that through LGA that stop within 1500 miles on their way to elsewhere.

                While there has been a trend towards regional jets, landing restriction at LGA is going to push airlines in the opposite direction and consolidate flights for LGA market. Delta is consolidating flights on landing slots they got from US Airways on larger aircraft.

                A short term improvement would be to move all general aviation (i.e. private jets) out of the 3 main airports to Teterboro, Westchester and MacArthur. Even then those resulting slots (~3 per 2hr each; ~4/hr total) will fill up quick.

            • Ben says:

              Haven’t looked at the others, but the A380 at maximum takeoff weight needs a 9000-foot runway, which would… well, without knowing the underwater topography of Flushing Bay, I can’t say how expensive it would be, but that’s 2000 feet more runway than they’ve got right now, if wikipedia is to be trusted.

  3. pea-jay says:

    While conceptional I like the idea of redeveloping Javits and making a new Queens Convention center with LIRR access via the Rockaway line to midtown (and even better, direct into the JFK Terminal 1-3 area) there’s a lot better things that can be done with infrastructure money:

    Here’s a few suggestions (if anyone is listening):
    1-Full length SAS with 125 extension to the 1 and a connection to the R just past Whitehall
    2-Extend 7 to Hoboken Terminal or Secaucus (with a 41s/10a station
    3-Triborough X
    4-LaGuardia Rail link
    5-Nostrand Extension

    • Bolwerk says:

      I’m probably in the minority in expressing this opinion, but I always figured outer borough transit is what should take precedent really. There are probably ways to relieve the Lex line by finding new routes to midtown on entirely new lines that are mostly built east-west from midtown to Brooklyn and Queens – or even through the Bronx to Queens and then to Midtown. Most of the midtown streets in the 30s, 40s, and 50s are suitable for subsurface infrastructure, so there are a lot of options.

      SAS is a worthy project, though I still think the lack of four tracks is a shot in the foot to the next generations who might want to connect it to the outer boroughs.

      • Christopher A. says:

        Bolwerk –

        I agree with you about the SAS. But it’s not too late to design the line below 63rd street to have 4 tracks – as I doubt they will do much of anything below that point until 2020…. If we have express tracks in the core midtown business district going downtown, we can get people off the Lexington Ave line – it may just attract people walking East from Grand Central, simply because they want to travel on a less crowded line.


      • Alon Levy says:

        On the contrary, Bolwerk. SAS is much more suitable for subsurface construction, since it’s a wide street and all the subway lines intersecting it are very deep. In contrast, the east-west streets are narrower (except for 57th) and intersect shallower north-south subways, forcing all newer construction to be deep-level, such as the 7, or the 53rd/Lex station on the IND. On top of that, there’s demand for north-south service on the East Side, and for more service to Midtown from the UES, and this is what’s making the Lex so crowded.

        • Bolwerk says:

          I agree with most of that, but I think I have to part with you on the “that’s what’s making the Lex so crowded” thing. Really, how much of the Lex’s peak crowding could be explained by the UES? I’d be shocked if that explained 15% of it. The Lex is packed coming into Manhattan from both Brooklyn and The Bronx, and phase 1 of SAS will only provide so much relief for these existing Lex riders:

          • 6 Train riders looking to get to the west side (5 and especially 4 Train riders already have competitive options)
          • some people who walk from ~2nd Ave. to crowded Lex trains already.
          Worthy, I think, but hardly the panacea SAS boosters are predicting. Another group, which may actually include some new induced ridership, the future transferees to/from the Q at 125th St, will often necessarily have origins or destinations east of Third Ave, but they’ll still be crowding the services in The Bronx.

          So I do think – especially given the insane costs – we’d have been much better off just building alternate routings to Midtown to relieve the Lex. Of course, we should really have both that and the SAS, but routings in the outer boroughs are obviously cheaper and could have been built first. Would finding an optimal way to cut north-south across the central Bronx and into northwestern Queens before turning into, say, 57th Street, be so ridiculous? Or some equivalent for Brooklyn?

    • Stevie B says:

      If there is really a concession to provide to the State by the MTA and the City, it should be this:
      6-Extend the 4 train to Yonkers Raceway up Jerome Ave to the Deegan/Thruway

      Because Yonkers Raceway already has Empire City, and huge parking lots that are almost never in full use. Build more parking lot levels and make that location be a commuter parking edge collector. The ROW that the 4 train travels on is already 3-track, so a peak hour express can run from there to major transfer points. Heck, give the train to there a new designation, the ‘8’. It would cut down on inbound traffic to Manhattan greatly and IIRC, that area of Yonkers is mostly commercial storefront anyway, so NIMBY resistance would seemingly be low (yes, the Airtrain had resistance, I’m aware of that)

  4. martindelaware says:

    Can we please spell Aqueduct correctly?

  5. SEAN says:

    Two typos

    1. convention in the title is misspelled.
    2. How can construction on the central terminal building begin in 2014 & end in 2012?

  6. Bolwerk says:

    Here is a PDF of a map of NYS railroads. Abandoned ones are grayed out. Zoom in on the NYC inset and you get a good view of active and abandoned lines in the five boroughs.

    What I guess is the Rockaway line (grayed line heading nearly due south to the Rockaways from the LIRR) really looks quite unobstructed by anything other than woods if you follow it in Google Satellite View.

    • Subutay Musluoglu says:

      Although no buildings have been built on the Rockaway Beach Branch ROW, there has been plenty of illegal encroachment by private homeowners who have extended their backyards on to the ROW. It will be interesting to see if the Rail to Trail movement for the RBB gains any traction and how these lawbreakers react to the initiative by their own neighbors. In an ideal world, the State of NY (which owns the line through their control of the LIRR’s assets) would play the proper role of a landlord. That includes clearly staking out the ROW property lines, clearing any illegal structures, clearing vegetation, and fencing in the ROW. Then the state should declare that the RBB is a valuable public asset, and reserves the right to develop a rail transportation facility on it that serves the needs of the public, whatever that maybe, whether it’s a faster ride from the Rockaways, a more direct route to JFK, a way to serve the Aqueduct convention center, etc. If it has to wait for a more enlightened generation that does not have a kneejerk rejection of any rail service, so be it,, but at least it would be protected.

      • BBnet3000 says:

        Some of these yard encroachments may have been going on long enough to legally entitle them to the land by adverse possession.

        • Very unlikely considering New York’s adverse possession standards.

          • Christopher A. says:

            And…. The state can always condemn the ROW land that’s been taken by adverse possession and claim it has no value because there were still tracks on top of the land (of some other silly argument).

            • Bolwerk says:

              From what I can tell, the usual strategy with condemnation is at first trying to pay big bucks to make someone go away fast. If that doesn’t work, a fight ensues and smaller bucks will be doled out – and whoever picked the fight WILL lose in court.

              Does adverse possession even apply against the state? I guess it applies against the MTA, but if NYS owns this directly is it the same story?

    • Alon Levy says:

      The map is weird. It includes the Central Railroad of Long Island (abandoned 1879 immediately east of Flushing) but not railroads that lasted much longer, such as the Whitestone Branch (abandoned 1932), or the parts of the Lackawanna Railroad that were demolished with the construction of I-80.

      • Bolwerk says:

        Yes, I noticed it was oddly incomplete and inconsistent. Maybe the ROWs are more or less intact in some of those cases though. Or, maybe they were just never de-listed from whatever registry the FRA keeps. If you recall, the High Line had to be taken off the national railroad network to become a park.

  7. Bgriff says:

    A reasonably priced starting point could involve making the Aqueduct Racetrack station a two-way, full-time stop, and perhaps exploring options to run the C to Lefferts with the A either running full-time to Far Rockaway or split between Far Rock and Rockaway Park. (Or even some short-turning at Howard Beach?) The wait times between trains on the Far Rock branch during off-peak hours is what really hurts, I’d argue. The tracks between Euclid and Rockaway Blvd would get a little more crowded, but should be able to handle it considering the A and C already share a track under the East River.

  8. smartone says:

    Sorry but a Queens Convention Center is the dumbest idea in the world. ummm did they think that people put up with high price hotels rooms, no parking , expensive restaurants etc to have a convention because it is freaking manhattan and now you are going to try to convince people to come to NYC but just be in Queens????

    Also didn’t we just build a hugely expensive addition to the 7 train to get it to our current convention center?

    • Bolwerk says:

      Not to say I’m a big supporter of this whole notion, but if they’ll go to Boston or Vegas, why not Queens? :-\

      • Tom Grommell says:

        Vegas is a huge world destination. That part of Queens is the back of beyond.

        • Bolwerk says:

          Sure. But Vegas is that because it has cruft like casinos, bad entertainment, and convention centers. You can waste money and draw that kind of stuff to Queens, but I think there is no way around the fact that you’d be wasting money.

  9. John-2 says:

    As far as LGA goes, the least NIMBY-intrusive option would probably be building an extension off the Flushing line at Willet’s Point, by looping it around the east side of Cit Field and then along the GCP to the airport. Then you could run half the trains to the airport and half to Main Street (i.e. run tha AM/PM expresses to Main Street and run the locals to LGA during regular hours, and just split the service or run an LGA shuttle from Willet’s Point on nights and weekends).

    You’d have to extend/reroute most of the bus lines currently connecting up with the 7 at Main Street to Willet’s Point to order to maintain the same level of connection service, and you’d still irk the people living or working in the immediate area around Main Street. But building an elevated line from Willet’s Point to the airport would have virtually nothing in the way as far as residential areas are concerned, and certainly nowhere near the opposition any sort of above-ground extension via Astoria would (and has) endure.

    • Bolwerk says:

      That’s roundabout, and we really shouldn’t be surrendering to NIMBYs. It can’t be made clear enough: a subsurface – or even elevated route if it’s along the highway – cannot have a meaningfully negative effect on them in the long run. And the same more or less goes for reactivating a rail line on an existing private ROW.

      • John says:

        Any new subway routing would do best in terms of avoiding NIMBYism by following the highways — if you’re already living next to the GCP or the BQE, it’s hard to really grip that a new line on the surface or elevated is going to make more noise or make the neighborhood worse. The problem is in getting the subway from its existing lines onto the highway ROWs.

        I suppose as long as you maintain two lines running through QBP towards Astoria, you could have one terminating at Ditmars while the other turns out on the new line along the GCP to Astoria, but that area is the Land of the Ueber-NIMBYs — odds are they’d demand the MTA put the Astoria line underground at least north of Broadway at the same time they’re laying in a new spur to LGA. A spur off the Flushing line at Willet’s Point would only face the wrath of the 126th Street junkyards, since the route would run along Long Island Sound. It’s less direct, but that may be the only way to get something built with a minimum of legal wrangling.

    • marvin gruza says:

      Rather than looping arround citifield, extend the train from its current terminus up main street (a wide street) as a subway (about 4 blocks) before surfacing and running west along northern blvd and the gcp into the airport.

      this allows flushing to keep its full compliment of #7 trains and gives connections to the large number of buses that stop in flushing.

      Another option would be to just extend the express track in this fashion to and beyond laguadia to the center track of the astoria el before rejoining the #7 at queens boro plaza. In this way you have real birectional express service from flushing into manhattan serving the norther eastern queeens riders who are transfering from buses without taking away from the western queens users.

  10. Df says:

    It will not happen at all

  11. marvin gruza says:

    can the amtrak elevated structure between 31 Street and the grand central parkway support a 2 track continuation of the Astoria el over the current 4 tracks (or even just a 1 track elevated structure by acquiring and using the currently unused 4th track)? If so, this could “fly” better with the nimbys.

    another option would be to have the R and/or M continue from 71/ Continental forest Hills straight up the right hand shoulder of west bound GCP into Laguadia at ground level. Reconfiguration of some parkway interchanges would be necessary.

    While the M/R are local in Queens, easy cross platform transfers in forest hills would be available as would access to jamaica via the E train. Utilizing skip station service on the Queens local portion could further enhance this for all concerned. This is not the ideal route but could be a “doable” one.

    • Alon Levy says:

      Forget about using the NEC structure. It would need flyovers, and els-over-els are expensive to construct. And after spending a nontrivial amount of money on construction, the single-tracking would require most N/Q trains to turn at Ditmars, constraining them to just one terminal track to avoid interfering with through-trains to the airport.

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