Ask any New Yorker about LaGuardia Airport, and you’ll likely get a sigh in reply. LaGuardia is Just One Of Those Things New Yorkers seem to tolerate about the city. It’s old and charmless, with certain terminals meeting standards of acceptability and others held together, often literally, with duct tape. It is constantly ranked as the worst airport in America for traveler amenities and suffers from chronic delays due to a distinct lack of runway space. It’s not a particularly welcoming gateway to the city for New Yorkers arriving home and travelers stopping by for a visit.
A few months after the Vice President called LaGuardia a “third-world airport,” Joe Biden joined with New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo yesterday to unveil a $4-billion plan to replace LaGuardia with a modern terminal with the bells and whistles travelers have come to expect while expanding runway space to increase flight capacity. The first part of the project should wrap by the early 2020s with the fate of the rest of it in Delta’s hands. The plan in a vacuum is laudable, but there’s something about Cuomo’s approach to LaGuardia along with his words and actions on transit that has me and many other transit advocates casting rightly wary eyes toward this project.
Let’s start with the details. What do we get for our $4 billion? Based on the Governor’s Airport Master Plan Advisory Panel report [PDF], LaGuardia will morph from an airport with multiple disparate terminals to one with a signal unified building. The new structure on the western half of the LaGuardia site will include terminal space, a centralized arrivals and departures area and a link to Delta’s terminals. Delta will be in charge of redesigning its terminals and is amenable to seeing out the panel’s suggestions.
The new terminal will be a significant upgrade over the old. It will be physically closer to the Grand Central Parkway and will feature an island gate system with raised pedestrian bridges. As Cuomo’s office said in a subsequent release, “Together, the relocated terminals and island-gate system will create nearly two miles of new taxiway space. This allows for a more efficient circulation of aircraft and reduced taxi-in and taxi-out times, which will yield shorter and fewer gate delays.”
In addition to these physical improvements, the panel put forward a number of recommendations that weren’t included in Monday’s $4 billion reveal. Chief among those were the transportation access suggestions. The panel, for some reason, endorsed the Willets Point airlink and urged New York to include ferry access to LaGuardia. It also called for increased parking at LaGuardia as something that would, inconceivably, benefit surrounding communities. Finally, the panel urged the Port Authority to develop a unified security area and, building on the lesson of Sandy, storm resiliency. It’s not yet clear how these elements of the plan would be funded.
“New York had an aggressive, can-do approach to big infrastructure in the past – and today, we’re moving forward with that attitude once again,” the Governor said during his press conference. “We are transforming LaGuardia into a globally-renowned, 21st century airport that is worthy of the city and state of New York. It’s the perfect metaphor for what we can achieve with the ambition and optimism and energy that made this the Empire State in the first place.”
While speaking off the cuff, though, Gov. Cuomo led slip that he felt LaGuardia had become “un-New York,” because, he said, the airport is considered “slow, dated, [and] almost universally derided.” And herein lies the rub. If an airport that’s slow and dated and universally derided is considered un-New York, what exactly does that make the subway system and remainder of the transit network that millions use on a daily basis to navigate around the city? I’m not the only one asking this question; Streetsblog’s Ben Fried posed a similar one late on Monday afternoon. From there, we see the blowback against the plan.
That Cuomo is thinking big about something transit-related isn’t a new development. After all, his administration is building the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement, for now awkwardly called the New New York Bridge. But what do his projects do? Who benefits? By and large, airport projects are aimed at improving the lives of those traveling to and from a city, not those traveling within a city. These are transient travelers who do indeed add to the economy of the city but aren’t living in it and of it.
As with many Cuomo projects, it’s hard not to feel that this one came from his personal experiences flying between the city and Albany. In terms of bang for your buck, an overhaul of the Port Authority Bus Terminal or a real plan to rebuild Penn Station and start moving on trans-Hudson tunnels would affect far more daily travelers than a rebuild of LaGuardia airport, and the dollars would be comparable. But Cuomo doesn’t talk about these proposals because he doesn’t take buses or trains; he flies and he drives, and as the lack of public process shows, he doesn’t really care what anyone else thinks. He wants it; it becomes reality.
Meanwhile, the access components to the LaGuardia overhaul as bad as they were in January. The Willets Point AirTrain routing remains worse than a no-build option; as I explored then with help from Yonah Freemark, sending airport travelers to the 7 saves no time and will cause massive headaches for 7 train operations. The Queens ferry terminal — a bus ride away from the new LaGuardia terminals — is a laughably ridiculous idea that doesn’t even need to be logically debunked to seem silly.
Finally, as LaGuardia soars, the subways sink. Cuomo won’t commit to a progressive traffic pricing plan to fund New York City transit, and the Governor now has to console, for example, C train riders who don’t care much one way or another for a LaGuardia overhaul over the fact that 50-year-old subway cars are considered acceptable. If it’s “un-New York” for something to be slow, dated and derided — if we need a 21st Century city — why do the subways, without a contactless fare payment system, city-wide countdown clocks, or an expansion plan to meet demand, get short shrift while the airport is lavished with dollars? That’s Gov. Cuomo and his transit priorities for you.