After months of saying very little of anything while campaigning for a second term and hardly anything about transit for four years while governing, Andrew Cuomo stunned New Yorkers by announcing plans to build an AirTrain from the 7 train and LIRR station at Willets Point to Laguardia Airport. Cuomo, who has made modernizing New York’s struggling airports, said that the rail connection will cost $450 million and could be up and running within five years of the start of construction.
For transit advocates and, in fact, for travelers who frequent New York City airports, the announcement came as something of a bombshell. The is the first time in over four years that Cuomo has discussed a direct rail connection to Laguardia, and he seemingly announced it as a fait accompli without any detail as to how his administrative picked this alignment or, more importantly, how this project will be funded. In fact, while introducing the infrastructure elements of the 2015 Opportunity Agenda, Cuomo also discussed high-speed ferry service throughout the city, the Penn Station Access plan
The Laguardia AirTrain, Cuomo said, will be constructed by the MTA and Port Authority, similar to the JFK Airtrain, and the proposed routing is designed to avoid any NIMBY complaints. The proposal calls for a terminal at Willets Point above the Corona Yards in between the 7 line stop and LIRR station with a routing above the Grand Central Parkway to Laguardia Airport, under two miles away. “You can’t get to Laguardia by train, and that really is inexcusable,” the governor said.
The announcement seemed to catch MTA and Port Authority officials off-guard, and as with Mayor Bloomberg’s back-of-the-napkin plan to send the 7 train to Secaucus, the agencies had to scramble for a statement. This time, though, their boss had issued the challenge instead of just the mayor of New York City. Later in the day, Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye and MTA CEO Tom Prendergast issued a joint statement:
“Governor Cuomo has offered a clear vision and strong call for the transportation infrastructure that is absolutely essential for the New York region to compete successfully in the global economy. The Port Authority and the MTA are working closely to establish the scope, schedule and management of the LaGuardia AirTrain, just as they worked closely to create the successful JFK AirTrain. We will build this project in a cost-effective way that minimizes disruptions to nearby communities as well as airport operations, and we can get it done within five years of obtaining all necessary approvals. Both our organizations recognize the importance of these infrastructure projects and congratulate the Governor on his foresight.”
So does it work? Let’s drill down.
The Good: A Rail Connection to Laguardia
In a vacuum, a rail connection to Laguardia with political support, political capital and a political champion behind it is a good idea. The governor, who is, despite his flaws, a strong executive in New York, is talking about improving the way we travel to the airport, and he has a vision that is, compared with other New York City transit projects, affordable and practical. It doesn’t involve construction through any neighborhoods replete with NIMBY opposition and solves an immediate problem by improving access to Laguardia in a way that isn’t as stigmatized as bus service is. In broad strokes, a Laguardia AirTrain is a badly-needed service that should have been built years ago.
The Bad: The Routing
That said, Cuomo’s proposal is something of a mess from a transit planning perspective. By avoiding any battle with NIMBYs — except perhaps with those who live above the Grand Central Parkway with views of the Long Island Sound — Cuomo has essentially picked the worst of the possible Laguardia rail connection routings, and we don’t know why. As I mentioned, Cuomo didn’t discuss how other alternatives were eliminated or how he settled upon his proposed alignment.
The real issue is travel time. The 7 train from Times Square to Willets Point is a 25-minute express ride and a 30-minute local ride. AirTrain passengers would then have to switch to an AirTrain and backtrack to reach the airport. To make this work, the MTA would have to consider permanent super-express service to Willets Point during off-peak hours, and I’m afraid consider the peak-hour effect on already-crowded 7 trains. At least the nearby LIRR station can alleviate some of the pressure, but a trip that takes a good 45 minutes from Midtown can’t compete with the Q70 from Jackson Heights, a shuttle bus or even a taxi.
Now, in the past, as we know, NIMBYs torpedoed a Giuliani plan to send the N to Laguardia. You can read the original engineering report and my recent analysis of the old plan. That’s probably the ideal alignment in terms of speed as it is the most direct connection to Manhattan and major destination points from Laguardia. The second best choice would have involved staging an AirTrain station near Jackson Heights and providing service from the 7/E/F/M/R station via the BQE and Grand Central to the airport. Instead, we have a Willets Point-based plan, and we don’t eve know why. This isn’t something we should accept simply because a politician has proposed spending money on an AirTrain.
The Ugly: The Money
The money, of course, is another major issue. The MTA is in dire need of someone to address a $15 billion capital funding gap in its current five-year plan. They need to spend $32 billion but can only generate around $17 billion. Meanwhile, this $32 billion doesn’t include the capital costs for a new airport rail connection. Now, the agency is scrambling to update its documents, but the money for the badly needed parts of the plan — signal upgrades, Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway — still isn’t there.
The other issue is the cost. It’s optimistic to think that the MTA and Port Authority can build a rail extension on time for around $300 million a mile, and although the JFK AirTrain was on time and on budget, nothing else of this magnitude has been. I can run through the litany of problems that have plagued the 7 line, the Fulton St. Transit Center, the PATH Hub, East Side Access, and the Second Ave. Subway, but we know this story well: Nothing comes in on time or on budget, and cost projections often do not align with reality. Without a better understanding of the sources of Cuomo’s $450 million price tag, we can’t adequate assess this project’s chances either. Still, as I mentioned, the MTA’s current capital proposal should take priority.
The Unknown: What Happens Next
Right now, I have no idea where this goes. When Bloomberg announced the Secaucus plan for the 7 train late in his third term without the support of the MTA, Albany or New Jersey, it was obvious this plan would go nowhere. But Cuomo is at the start of this second term and has banked a lot of political capital on dealing with New York’s airports. He has the weight, the pull and the financial resources at his disposal to get this project off the table. It might just happen, and it just arrived out of left field.
Still, I have serious reservations about the way this came about. It’s not a great alignment, and it leaves commuters on a slow and crowded train. It’s a connection, but it’s not a direct one. It doesn’t help improve access to Laguardia for airport workers, and it shifts economic resources from other projects and proposals that should be a priority. Still, it’s heartening to see Cuomo paying attention to rail. Is there time to improve this idea or are we doomed to another airport connection that’s only just good enough?