As bad transit ideas go, New York City has had its fair share in recent years. While it shouldn’t have been canceled, the ARC Tunnel featured a dead-end terminal half a mile beneath Macy’s, and it was topped by only the ongoing money pit that is East Side Access, a dead-end terminal half a mile beneath Grand Central. The BQX, likely the city’s greatest bit of vaporware ever, still hasn’t been canceled, and then we have the Laguardia AirTrain in a class all of its own.
The Laguardia AirTrain is the stubborn bad idea that just won’t die. It came out of nowhere in early 2015, and while it could have been a good idea pushed by a strong state leader, Cuomo’s plan sent the AirTrain in the wrong direction. The system would connect LaGuardia with the 7 train and LIRR at Willets Point. So while most LaGuardia travelers just want to get to Manhattan, this thing will take them further away from where they want to go. When the plan first came out, I discovered how, in a true alternatives analysis, the no-build option would be best.
The idea fell by the wayside for a while, but now it’s back. Cuomo, who could have tried to push through an N train extension to the airport, seems intent on realizing this cockamamie transit plan. “The millions of passengers who travel through LaGuardia each year deserve a convenient and reliable mass transit option that connects this key transportation hub to the heart of Manhattan,” he said in a statement a few weeks ago. “We are transforming LaGuardia into a world-class transportation gateway, and an essential piece of the puzzle is ensuring rail mass transit access to the airport. With this action, we’re taking the next major step toward making this a reality.”
The latest announcement concerned the RFP for the entire project. It will eventually involve significant work on the current Willets Point station and construction of the AirTrain over the Grand Central Parkway. Cuomo’s release claims this new AirTrain will provide a ride of less than 30 minutes to Midtown, but that relies on a significant increase in LIRR service along the Port Washington line or an impossible two-way express service on the 7.
The costs meanwhile have, not shockingly, creeped ever upward. What was once billed as a $400 million project is now budgeted for over $1 billion in the latest Port Authority capital plan, but it’s not clear exactly how much the LaGuardia project itself will cost. The budget includes money for AirTrain improvements at both LaGuardia and Kennedy, but the LaGuardia proposal will cost at least $1 billion.
So why is this plan proceeding? Over at The Village Voice, Max Rivlin-Nader offered up his view. He writes, “Cuomo is insisting on the Willets Point connection because it’s the most expedient. By building above a train depot and having the train zip alongside the Grand Central parkway, he’ll avoid any community complaints. And, he’ll finally have a train.”
The problem, of course, is that once this train is built, we’re stuck with it. The N train will never go to Laguardia; a potential routing from Jackson Heights will fall by the wayside. Cuomo won’t be the governor forever, but New Yorkers will have to live with a Laguardia AirTrain routing that makes sense for umpires tasked with games at Citi Field, U.S. Open fans, and the Braves trying to get back to Atlanta. It will, in every sense of the word, become a transit boondoggle, used by few and scorned by many, another arrow in the quiver of the argument that we can’t build useful transit projects at reasonable costs.
It doesn’t have to be like that. Cuomo could use his political capital to push back on whoever remains from the late 1990s Astoria NIMBYs who fought against an N train extension. He could promote something useful and direct, that would benefit workers and travelers. He could leave a positive legacy on Laguardia and its accessibility. Instead, the AirTrain to nowhere inches closer to reality. It just won’t die.