Hell froze over this week when The New York Post’s editorial board agreed with AOC. The topic, of course, was the suddenly-controversial LaGuardia AirTrain. The latest chapters in this saga began when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes penned a letter to the FAA earlier this week asking to understand why some common-sense transit options, including dedicate bus infrastructure, a subway from Astoria and an AirTrain from Jackson Heights. The Post’s editorial board followed suit, calling the Port Authority’s plan a “worthless white elephant” while The Daily News also spoke out against the plan. Whether it’s too late in the process as too many powerful state interests have lined up behind the Willets Point plan remains to be seen, but these are welcome voices in the fight for a better, more useful transit connection to LaGuardia Airport.
Meanwhile, the FAA is moving forward with the process and hosted two public information sessions at the LaGuardia Marriott, a hotel that’s one of the least transit-accessible in the city. It’s nearly two miles from the nearest subway stop and across the street from the airport. You could be forgiven for thinking the session was planned to minimize comments from those who need and want a more holistic transit option. Yet, some intrepid New Yorkers made the trek, and one of those was Rich Mintz.
Rich posted a very comprehensive Twitter thread from the first meeting on Tuesday night, and I asked him to turn his experiences into a guest post. You’ll find some similarities between Rich’s experience and my post on the Port Authority Alternatives Analysis report, but one key difference involves the host. The FAA has yet to release its own Alternatives Analysis report, and the agency told me this week that they “intend to release the alternatives report documenting the alternatives evaluation process shortly after the public information sessions.” Mintz gives us a glimpse at the process, and it’s just as flawed as the Port Authority’s. I’ll let him take over from here.
The Federal Aviation Administration, stewards of the LGA Access Improvement Project on behalf of the Port Authority, is steering the outcome toward Governor Andrew Cuomo’s desired conclusion: the $2 billion dollar AirTrain to Willets Point with a $7.75 fare and a trip in the wrong direction away from Manhattan. While those trying to reach the eastern of the 7 train or LIRR’s infrequent Port Washington Branch are in luck, this route does next to nothing for people bound elsewhere. This week, in two public information sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings at a hotel next to the Grand Central Parkway, the FAA tried to defend this plan. I attended to see how the case was being made.
I think the Willets Point AirTrain is the wrong solution, and I’m not the only one. But it seemingly doesn’t matter what I or anyone else thinks as the FAA made clear no other solution was taken seriously in their “study,” which was designed to ensure every other plan was to fall out of consideration during the two stages of evaluation.
Ben Kabak’s review of the Port Authority’s own alternatives analysis, published last week, makes this point; and it was validated by the materials the FAA (or more precisely its contractor, Ricondo) presented this week.
Getting to the public information session was harder than it sounds, given that you can see LaGuardia’s Terminal C out the window of the hotel. M60-SBS and Q70-SBS buses are in plain view, but they don’t stop here. I had to take the Q33 from 74 St/Roosevelt Avenue, which dropped me half a mile from the venue; other buses run closer, but they also run less frequently or approach from the wrong direction. To get to the meeting from Manhattan’s East 30s took me almost 90 minutes. Ideally, a meeting about building transit to an airport would be held in a transit-accessible venue, but the FAA and the Port Authority are looking to influence people who care more about validated parking (which was freely offered) than transit. It’s possible I was the only person in the room who arrived by transit from more than a mile away.
Inside, the FAA used a series of posters to present their study, describing the 47 other ideas they considered and rejected in favor of the Willets Point AirTrain. You can read more about the approaches and the selection criteria in the scoping materials at the FAA’s project website. Generally, the FAA argued as follows:
- Given the goal of improving access to the airport, the consultants examined alternatives in nine categories, ranging from buzzwordy nonsense like “reducing air traffic at LGA” (not happening) and “use autonomous vehicles” (nothing to do with the problem at hand) to bus, subway, rail, and fixed-guideway (or AirTrain) infrastructure.
- As a first test, the FAA (borrowing from the Port Authority) determined that any solution would have to create “time-certain” trips to the airport, create a new mode of access to the airport, reduce vehicle trips into the airport without creating congestion, and create 175,000 square feet of employee parking (an entirely separate issue).
- Any solution that made it through the first test would then have to clear a second test by establishing that it would be “reasonable” to construct and operate. This second test, of course, depends on how “reasonable” is defined, and as it happens, it was defined to exclude virtually anything that might have impact on any existing infrastructure or services.
Based on the posters presented (and summarized in a November presentation [pdf]), here are how these tests played out in practice:
- All alternatives not involving new infrastructure were rejected, mostly based on the first test: they wouldn’t solve the problem.
- Addressing the problem via bus priority was rejected out of hand because buses wouldn’t produce “time-certain” travel to the airport. Why is that? Well, because the FAA claims they can’t control what happens after a bus reaches the entrance to the airport. The Port Authority can, of course; after all, they own all the roads near the terminals and have the power to control how lanes are used. But the consultants assumed they won’t bother, and in this circular manner, buses were rejected without even being considered. Additionally, the FAA further claimed buses would “cause congestion” in the airport, and according to the criteria, any solution that impacts the experience of people who use private cars to get to the airport is rejected out of hand, never mind that a fundamental aim of this initiative is to dissuade people from driving to the airport.
- All the conventional rail options were rejected, based on the second test. Rail to Sunnyside Yard doesn’t solve the connectivity problem, and a new East River rail tunnel would cost three or four times as much as an AirTrain (despite, one could argue, far more utility).
- Subway extension options were rejected based on the second test: Construction would require temporary closing of traffic lanes in Astoria, relocating underground utilities, interrupting LIRR or Amtrak service, or making physical improvements to the Hell Gate Bridge. Apparently any plan that requires any disruption to any existing service is disqualified, and God forbid we temporarily put construction equipment in a traffic lane in order to build a major item of public infrastructure.
- That leaves more than a dozen fixed-guideway options, including various routes connecting to subway and rail in Jamaica, Willets Point, Woodside, Jackson Heights, and Astoria. All were rejected for similar reasons: water and sewer lines can’t be affected; the BQE, GCP, and Van Wyck can’t be affected, existing LIRR and Amtrak services can’t be affected; the Hell Gate Bridge can’t be affected.
It is, of course, nonsense to claim that we can build infrastructure with no disruptions to anything or anyone and equally nonsense to claim that a Willets Point AirTrain wouldn’t also do that. Given its route adjacent to Flushing Bay, it’s also objectively more environmentally impactful than many of the other choices. But when you game the process, you get the outcome you want, and in the end, of 49 alternatives, only two survived both the first and the second test: Cuomo’s Willets Point AirTrain, and the “do nothing” option, which is required by law to be considered.
All in all, the experience of attending this meeting was bleak. I’m not a stranger to the public engagement process; As a Community Board member, I’ve been to dozens of public meetings. But it was hard not to come away from the FAA’s defense of the Willets Point AirTrain without feeling like I was being railroaded. If we’re going to spend $2 billion dollars on airport mobility, there are many more useful ways to do it than a big piece of infrastructure that connects to an overcrowded subway line and a second-string LIRR platform for a fare of $7.75.
Rich Mintz is a safe streets and transportation activist and member of Manhattan Community Board 6. He’s the author of Hey! We’re Walking Here, a resource website for people concerned about pedestrian safety and street design in the five boroughs.