Tuesday dawned with some odd news: An unsigned New York 1 reported alleged that Gov. Andrew Cuomo was gathering officials and dignitaries in Queens to celebrate the groundbreaking of the Laguardia AirTrain. This did not make sense. The AirTrain plan is still half-formed with no firm cost estimate or any sort of plan. Cuomo wants to build a leg from the Willets Point subway/LIRR stop to Laguardia via the Grand Central Parkway because there are no NIMBYs to upset, but that’s about all we know.
As the day unfolded, I wondered what was happening. Cuomo has been known to push through projects without clarity regarding funding sources (hello, New New York Bridge), but even the AirTrain would require some sort of environmental impact study. And so as the press event unfolded, it became clear that it wasn’t about the AirTrain and rather about Cuomo’s $4 billion public-private partnership that will fund the Laguardia rebuild. The AirTrain is still simply in the works, but how firm those plans are remains to be seen.
The plans involve a new Terminal B and Central Hall that should mesh with Delta’s own proposal to renovate its terminal. It’s being funded through private investment (though Cuomo’s statements made it sound like he called in a favor for some federal dollars too), and the project should wrap by 2021, just shy of the end of Cuomo’s potential third term. During the press conference, Cuomo briefly touched upon the idea of an AirTrain. He also claimed it would provide a ride to Penn Station and claimed that East Side Access would connect Penn Station and Grand Central. It was not a banner presser for Cuomo and transit. In the press release, the word “AirTrain” appears exactly once in a quote attributed to State Senator Jose Peralta.
All of this leads me to a question: Is the Laguardia AirTrain proposal real or is it simply vaporware from a governor looking to be viewed as “strong on infrastructure” so that he can position himself for a run at the White House in four or eight years? It is of course far too early to judge, but while the Laguardia overhaul is moving forward, the AirTrain is heading for purgatory.
For now, the only money allocated to the project is a $78 million item in the MTA’s approved capital plan for “replacement and upgrade” of the Willets Point LIRR station. The project will support full-time service for a “large volumes of railroad customers” with “seamless, direct access” to the AirTrain. The LIRR is to perform the preliminary design and environmental review work before transferring the AirTrain project and oversight of the Mets-Willets Transit Hub to the Port Authority for the procurement and construction phases.
So where does that leave us? I’ve written extensively about how the no-build option is likely better than the Willets Point routing for a Laguardia AirTrain and how the time is ripe for an N train extension to Laguardia rather than a Willets Point AirTrain. Yet, Cuomo has an idea for this project stuck in his head, and he has shown a willingness to push through this type of work. It may be right to call it vaporware simply because Cuomo is behind it, but for now, it looks awfully akin to transit vaporware.
As now, the LIRR expects to spend the money for the Willets Point work in 2017 and 2018. So it’s likely to be a few years before we even know what the EIS assessment for this LGA AirTrain concludes. For now, then, the best and only transit upgrades that will accompany the new Laguardia is a rebranding of the Q70 as the Laguardia Link complete with pre-board fare payment. It’s a step in the right direction and one that can be implemented in a few months. It’s not a substitute for a real effort to improve transit to the airport, but then again, neither is the Willets Point AirTrain, whenever it rolls around.