Amongst certain corners of the Internet, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s LaGuardia Airport replacement plan is generating some mix of trepidation and excitement. Writing in New York Magazine, Justin Davidson called the plan flawed and vital, though he highlighted more of the former and not enough of the latter to make a convincing case, and other New York voices have generally praised the Governor’s plan for addressing the perceived problems with the airport. Still, one part of the plan — the Willets Point AirTrain — shouldn’t get a pass.
When word of Cuomo’s LaGuardia AirTrain first came out earlier this year, I was very skeptical of the plan. As Yonah Freemark wrote at the time, sending an AirTrain from LaGuardia away from Manhattan to the 7 train and LIRR at Willets Point is likely worse than the no-build option, and transit bloggers aren’t the only ones concerned with a plan that adds travel time to likely destinations from the airport.
Late last week, Jimmy Van Bramer, a City Council representative from Queens, expressed his own concerns with the plan. “Any proposal that adds passengers to the 7 line should take into consideration the maximum capacity at which ridership is currently at,” he said to the Daily News. Van Bramer is thinking about transit issues while Cuomo’s people, as one spokesperson said, is singular focused on how it “makes absolutely no sense” that LaGuardia isn’t rail-accessible. That said, bad rail connections are worse than no rail connections.
Since New York City and New York State have one chance to get this project right, it’s important to hash out these issues, and it seems as though Cuomo is taking the path of least political resistance. He seems to think that the idea of rail is better than no rail even if the routing is terrible, and he isn’t willing to wage a political fight. He’s also wrong.
The best routing for direct rail access to LaGuardia Airport likely involves the N train, and the plan isn’t a novel one. Over the nine years I’ve run this site, I’ve frequently returned to the idea of an N train to LaGuardia. As I detailed in 2010, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani had hoped to build a subway to LaGuardia in the late 1990s, but he gave up that dream once Queens NIMBYs reared their hands. I recently revisited that story in 2014, and today, it seems like ancient history. Old-school political forces in Queens battled perceptions of a disruptive subway construction project, and yet again, the rest of New York lost at the hands of a bunch of people protecting their own self-interests.
It’s been nearly 15 years since that N train plan died, and it’s time to try again. In a post written shortly after mine last year, Cap’n Transit explained why the time is ripe to revisit an Astoria extension, and his reasoning applies today as we discuss LaGuardia’s future.
The train was indeed shelved due to community opposition, as everyone reminds us, but what they fail to note is that the “community leaders” are all gone. Read through the list of politicians who came out against the plan. Denis Butler and Walter McCaffrey are dead. Peter Vallone, Senior is retired, and so is George Onorato, and Vallone Junior has been term-limited out. John Sabini was hustled off to the Racing Authority after a DUI conviction in 2007.
Not only are these windshield-perspective politicians gone, but their replacements are much less wedded to the idea that cars are the future. Senator Michael Gianaris and his protégée Assemblymember Aravella Simotas are disappointing in some ways, but they’ve kept their car activism pretty low-key, as has Senator José Peralta. City Council members Jimmy Van Bramer and Costa Constantinides are both progressive on transit issues… More importantly, the voters and donors in that area care more about trains than parking today.
Another baffling element of the 1990s opposition to the extension was that it seemed like the objections could all have been overcome with some thought, but the “community leaders” weren’t interested. The line could have been run entirely over the Grand Central “Parkway,” or put underground as far south as Astoria Boulevard. A solid proposal that addresses those objections, especially if it has the backing of business leaders like the Global Gateway Alliance, should be able to win over Gianaris, Simotas and Constantinides, and eventually the rest of Astoria. It’s not 1999, people, and we shouldn’t be acting like it is.
Cap’n Transit penned those words 15 months ago, and they are equally applicable today. It’s time to revive the idea of an N train extension to LaGuardia. If we’re going to spend $400-$800 million on an AirTrain that will lead to more problems than it solves, our leaders owe it to us and future generations of New Yorkers to fight for the right solution. The NIMBYs aren’t in power; let’s not pretend they are. The N train should go to LaGuardia, not an AirTrain to the 7 train and Willets Point.