Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s decision to shut the subway system on Monday night wasn’t the most surprising transit development coming from the governor’s office this past week. Prior to this week’s snow brouhaha, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s other idea — an AirTrain to LaGuardia Airport — dominated the transit press coverage. As you’ll recall, seemingly out of nowhere, Cuomo announced a plan to build an AirTrain for $450 million from Willets Point to LaGuardia via the Grand Central Parkway. In theory, improving rail access to LaGuardia is a great idea that needs a champion; in practice, Cuomo’s idea isn’t one we should rush to embrace by any means.
When I had a chance to delve into Cuomo’s proposal last week, I wasn’t too impressed. He picked the worst choice out of three or four possible routings, and the money seemed optimistically low. Since then, I’ve learned that, much like Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s idea to send the 7 to Secaucus, the Govornor’s AirTrain proposal doesn’t have much backing it. The cost estimates can’t be traced to any recent (or, for that matter, old) study, and it’s not clear from those at the MTA how or why the governor chose this plan or why the Port Authority is not involved as it was with the JFK AirTrain.
I’m not alone in casting a skeptical eye toward Cuomo’s plan, and as part of today’s postmortem — likely not to be the final word on this idea — I’d like to look at three other takes. The first comes to us from Yonah Freemark who dusted off The Transport Politic to share his thoughts on the proposal. Freemark’s headline sums it up: The LaGuardia AirTrain “will save almost no one any time.” He writes:
Governor Cuomo’s project would not have any of the negative community effects the proposal from fifteen years ago had. Its elevated tracks would be hidden behind a much more noisy and already-existing highway. Moreover, its terminus station at Mets-Willets Point would be surrounded by parking lots and sports facilities. These attempts to shape a project that does nothing to disturb existing communities, however, has produced a proposal that would be worthless in terms of time savings for people traveling from the airport in almost all directions…
Transit travel times from LaGuardia to destinations throughout New York City — from Grand Central in Midtown Manhattan to Borough Hall in downtown Brooklyn to Jamaica in central Queens to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx — would be longer for passengers using the AirTrain than for passengers using existing transit services already offered by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. This finding suggests that for most people in the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and Long Island, AirTrain services will not be beneficial from a time perspective.
Given the fact that the AirTrain services would likely be automated, therefore reducing labor costs, it may be reasonable to assume that existing transit services to the airport would be eliminated to save costs. In other words, people may be forced to switch into the new, slower rail option.
That, alone, should be enough to doom the project, and based on Freemark’s study, both an AirTrain from Jackson Heights or a direct extension of the N train from Astoria would be the preferred build as both have essentially equal travel times from popular destinations. As Freemark states, “It’s hard to imagine how the state can justify spending half a billion dollars on a transit project that will increase travel times for most people.”
Over the weekend, Nate Silver offered his analysis of public transit options for airport travel. Picking up on my piece and Freemark’s analysis, Silver determines, unsurprisingly, that transit options to U.S. airports are by and large terrible. Even with the AirTrain, most travelers would be far better off taking a cab from LaGuardia to popular destinations factoring travel times and cab fares in a cost-benefit analysis. A viable proposal would seek to flip that result.
Finally, I urge you to read Alon Levy’s analysis of the political theory behind Cuomo’s decision. Levy brings up the idea that, by starting the debate with the Willets Point plan, he has framed it in such a way that he wins. Cuomo’s approach to transit planning is a top-down one that omits community feedback and benefits a very specific constituency — airport travelers. With no stops in populated neighborhoods that need transit access, Cuomo can allege to stifle NIMBYism without actually offering anything useful.
Levy, in fact, thinks we should ignore Cuomo’s plan altogether. He writes, “In such a climate, as soon as we talk about tweaks to Cuomo’s plan, Cuomo’s already won; whatever happens, he will reap the credit, and use it to buy political capital to keep building unnecessary megaprojects. Even trying to make the best of a bad situation by making the airport connector better is of little use, since Cuomo will support the plan that maximizes his political capital and not the one that maximizes transit usage even within such constraints as “must serve LaGuardia.'”
I believe Alon has a very good point, but I’m trying hard, and usually failing, to be less cynical about this plan. LaGuardia access seems to have a champion even if we don’t know what his true motives or underlying rationale are. The key though is opportunity. If New York sees through Cuomo’s plan, we’ve built something, but is that something good or even good enough? We have to remember that we have only one chance. Once the first dollar is allocated and the first pylon is sunk, New York will stuck with whatever Cuomo has decided. Based on the current proposal with its circular routing, slow travel times, and mysterious budget, that’s a scary thought for our future.