With the news that the Port Authority will spend at least $1.5 billion to send PATH trains to Newark Airport, the most rail-accessible airport in New York, I started thinking about Laguardia again. It is frustrating close and seemingly so far away. For anyone taking transit to the airport, the trip involves a circuitous subway-and-bus combination, and it’s been over a decade since anyone has mentioned a direct rail connection, monorail or subway, to the terminal geographically closest to Manhattan. They why of it involves a typical tale of New York NIMBYs and frustrating political processes.
The Fiorello H. LaGuardia Airport in Queens is one of the nation’s most infuriating urban airports. In Queens, it’s tantalizingly close to the Bronx, Manhattan and Brooklyn — and of course, the subway — but it’s so far away because traffic congestion frequently creates trips to Queens that last an hour and 30 minutes from Midtown’s West Side. The only public transit options that delivery riders directly to the terminals are a handful of local buses and a a new Q70 limited bus. On a good day, for example, the M60 — recently denied Select Bus Service status — goes from 125th St. and Lexington to the airport in a half an hour.
Over the last few decades, city officials have become quite intimate with the problems plaguing LaGuardia, and many have tried to fix it. The N train, whose northern terminus is less than three miles away from the LaGuardia terminals, is so tantalizing close to the airport and yet so far away. With the PATH extension back in the news, many are asking why we haven’t focused more on improving access to Laguardia. It isn’t for lack of trying as 16 years ago, city and MTA officials were heavily invested in a plan to extend the N to LaGuardia. In the face of other pressing transit needs, such as the Second Ave. Subway, and widespread community opposition, the agency eventually shelved this much needed link to LaGuardia.
So what then were the plans that engendered widespread community outrage and still cause politicians to chime in now and then, over a decade after the MTA discarded the idea? Let’s hop in the Wayback Machine and explore some Giuliani Era transit developments.
The plans to extend the N to LaGuardia first came to light in 1998 as city officials recognized the need to build better access to the airports. As part of a $1.2 billion package with funding coming from the MTA, the Port Authority and the city, Giuiliani put forward a plan to build an airtrain to JFK and extend the subway to LaGuardia. The JFK line — built over preexisting rights-of-way — survived. The LaGuardia plans, obviously, did not.
The first and biggest problem the city faced in Queens came about because of the proposed routes. The preferred routing would have extended the N along 31st St. north onto Con Edison’s property at the edge of Astoria and then east along 19th Ave. to the Marine Air Terminal. The MTA also considered an eastward extension along Ditmars Boulevard. This involved a plan to reroute LaGuardia-bound N trains from Queensboro Plaza through the Sunnyside rail yard and along the eastern edge of St. Michael’s Cemetery to what Newsday described as “elevated tracks parallel to the Grand Central Parkway.” A barely-acknowledged fourth route would have seen trains head east via Astoria Boulevard.
On the surface, these plans seem no worse than building the Second Ave. Subway through densely populated neighborhoods on the East Side. In Queens, however, the MTA would have had to build a spur line off a pre-existing elevated structure, and all of the plans called for the train to LaGuardia to run above ground through significant portions of Astoria. So while airport access ranked tops amongst Queens residents transit expansion wishlist, no one wanted to see Astoria further scarred by elevated structures. Chalk this up to a remnant of the 1920s and 1930s when New Yorkers objected en masse to elevated rail lines.
At the time, the Daily News termed the opposition response NAMBYism — Not Above My Backyard — and nearly every single Queens politician opposed the idea. Some preferred the Sunnyside alternative, but at the time, NYCDOT said plans to widen the Grand Central Parkway would interfere with the train proposal. Others called for an extension from Long Island City to skirt the borough. Such a route would run from 21st St. along the East River to the airport. Still others preferred a longer Willets Point extension of the LIRR to the airport.
Peter Vallone exemplified the opposition. “Extending the elevated track will cause unnecessary hardship to residents and businesses in the area,” the City Council member said in 1999. “The MTA wants to go their way, not our way.” It was, you see, a play on that old MTA slogan, “Going Your Way.”
In the end, despite opposition, political support for the plan from City Hall continued well into the 21st Century. With the backing of Mayor Giuliani and Queens Borough President Clare Shulman, the MTA’s 2000-2004 Five-Year Capital Plan included $645 million for the LaGuardia subway link, and even though a $17 million planning study was the project’s only expense, in late 2002, Mayor Bloomberg threw his weight behind the LaGuardia extension as a key post-9/11 revitalization plan.
Finally, in mid-2003, the Queens communities won the battle as the MTA announced plans to shelve the airport extension. With money tight after 9/11 and Lower Manhattan on the radar, then-MTA Chair Peter Kalikow said that the agency’s attention had turned to the JFK Raillink from Lower Manhattan, another plan that never materialized, and that the agency was prioritizing the 7 Line Extension, the East Side Access Plan and the Second Ave. Subway over the LaGuardia N train extension. “LaGuardia is a good project, but you have to prioritize,” Elliot Sander, then at NYU, said. “In terms of political support from City Hall, Albany and Washington, it’s moved back in the queue.”
In Queens, local politicians voiced support for different plans. George Onorato had previously supported some spurt from the 7 line in Willets Point that avoided residential areas. Of course, in the intervening decade, the Mets placed a new baseball stadium in the way, and the city’s plans to develop Willets Point don’t include a rail extension to Laguardia. Never mind the fact that going to Laguardia via Willets Point is a time-consuming and circuitous routing that wouldn’t attract many passengers.
And so in the end, we sit here with largely the same travel options to LaGuardia as we’ve always enjoyed (or suffered through). The Port Authority is set to spend $1.5 billion on a duplicative rail extension to an airport already served by Amtrak and New Jersey Transit, and the MTA is in no position to take another crack at sending the subway to the airport. Oh, what could have — and should have — been.