After years of lingering in limbo as costs increased fourfold, the Willets Point-based Laguardia Airtrain is rushing toward approval while community groups, transit activists and good governance watchdogs cry foul over a process heavily weighted to favor only Cuomo’s favored proposal even as evidence strongly supports better and more comprehensive transit solutions. Can this plan, a brainchild of Gov. Andrew Cuomo I have not-so-affectionately dubbed the Backwards Airtrain, be stopped?
We’ll find out soon if anything can be done to take full advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime chance to improve transit access to Laguardia, but the process Cuomo wants is rushing along. Next week, the FAA and Port Authority are hosting a pair of public information sessions, and while they claim they haven’t selected a preferred alternative yet, the only option to which the government has given support is conveniently Cuomo’s. As Queens residents and transit activists alike realize chances to stop this $2 billion boondoggle are running out, the opposition has called on Cuomo to put the brakes on the AirTrain and plan it properly. For Streetsblog last week, I penned an op-ed questioning the transit value of this route and making the transit case for a better option.
That piece and the neighborhood opposition seemed to have struck a nerve with someone in Albany or at the Port Authority, and the PA’s Executive Director responded with his own defense of the Cuomo AirTrain on Monday. I wanted to respond in depth to Cotton’s claims, but I also want to take a step back and conduct a deeper dive into the state of the Laguardia Airtrain than I was able to for the Streetsblog piece. So let’s go for a journey.
Previously on “Backwards AirTrain”…
To recap how we’ve gotten here, the governor proposed the idea out of nowhere in 2015. As transit experts delved into his plan, a consensus emerged that the Willets Point route would save very few people any time at all, and with an initial price tag of $450 million, the no-build option appeared to be the best. After all, why sink half a billion dollars from a limited pot of transit funds into a line with no real benefits?
Cuomo’s plan spurred on dreams of a revival of a true subway extension to the airport instead, but nothing really happened. After a 2016 release on the redevelopment of Laguardia including just one mention of the airtrain, I thought the plan transit vaporware on life support. By 2017, costs had more than doubled to $1 billion, but it kept chugging along. Cuomo wanted the train despite the cost and utility, and he was going to get his train.
This past summer, costs doubled again, as the Port Authority budgeted over $2 billion for the Laguardia AirTrain before any alternatives analysis had been published. I called for the governor to cancel the project then, and I repeated that call in the Streetsblog piece last week. It is, of course, falling on deaf ears as the Port Authority and the FAA are pushing forward with the Willets Point proposal.
Inside the LGA AirTrain Alternatives Screening
Behind the scenes, the Port Authority has been hard at work attempting to justify Cuomo’s proposal while giving short shrift to options that improve transit through neighborhoods in Queens and to the airport. At some point since October of 2018, the Port Authority quietly released a series of comprehensive planning reports all available midway down their AirTrain page. I want to focus on key parts of the alternatives analysis, conducted in 2018 and available as a PDF. The FAA has recently adopted this analysis for a community presentation, and it appears to have definitively eliminated any other option other than the Backwards AirTrain despite what I believe is a flawed analysis.
For the Alternatives Analysis, the Port Authority considered ferry service, improving bus service, extending the subway from Astoria or implementing an airtrain from Woodside in addition to Cuomo’s proposal. They assessed each along eight criteria, but I want to focus on two — Criteria 4 (Reduce the use of on-road vehicles to move passengers to, from, and within the Airport) and Criteria 8 (Design and construct a project that avoids substantial disruption to the neighborhoods where it is located). These were the two criteria used to bounce better bus service and subway or other airtrain routings preferred by transit experts.
When it come to buses, the Port Authority essentially gave up. Noting that buses are subject to variable and unpredictable surface traffic conditions and relying on data from the current SBS Q70 implementation, the Port Authority determined that buses wouldn’t fulfill criteria 4. Other bus improvements and busways got the kibosh too:
The conversion of general-purpose traffic lanes to restricted bus lanes would substantially reduce vehicular volume along this corridor and eliminate parking, which would negatively affect businesses and likely be opposed by local businesses and residents. Dedicated bus infrastructure on the BQE, GCP, or RFK Bridge would substantially reduce these roadways’ capacities for general traffic, exacerbating delays on these already congested roadways. It is also unlikely that dedicated lanes could be implemented on these highways without capital enhancements to manage traffic flow and safety. The other types of bus enhancements, such as signal priority, have limited utility without dedicated bus lanes.
Considering all we know about improving bus service and getting people out of cars and into buses, the claim that buses wouldn’t fulfill Criteria 4 because the Port Authority doesn’t want to upset a few people doesn’t pass muster. The analysis seemed to be a convenient excuse to hand-wave away a low-cost solution to Laguardia traffic woes that could be implemented tomorrow and wouldn’t preclude building other high-capacity transit connections to the airport. But buses weren’t what Cuomo and the PA leadership wanted to accomplish.
Moving to rail, the report relied upon the MTA’s 1998 LaGuardia Airport Subway Access (LASA) Study, which determined that only three potential subway routes to the airport were feasible: an elevated branch line from the Astoria Boulevard station via the Grand Central Parkway; an elevated extension from Astoria–Ditmars Boulevard via 19th Avenue; and an extension from Astoria–Ditmars Boulevard via a tunnel beneath 19th Avenue.
Here, Criteria 8 comes into play, and even without delving into the extensive analysis in the Port Authority’s document, you can see where this is going. The PA talks about “extensive, complex construction on the Astoria Line and within and directly adjacent to a residential neighborhood and the GCP.” It mentions that “heavy construction would occur over a long period of time, with activities such as pile driving, jack hammering, the placement of beams and ties, and welding.” And it discussions “large new ventilation structures (in many cases taller than the nearby development)” required for the tunneling option. None of these are new to the fabric of infrastructure in New York City, but each are cited as reasons to avoid pursuing a subway extension. In each case, the Port Authority determined the subway options did not meet Criteria 8, concluding “construction of this alternative would require extensive and lengthy disruption directly within and near a densely developed residential neighborhood.”
A similar analysis bounced potential airtrains from Astoria and Woodside as well, with the Port Authority also bemoaning the need to purchase around 40 total residential and commercial properties for either option. Despite bringing most riders toward their destination (as opposed to away) and still providing connections to the subway and an LIRR station on the Main Line, the Port Authority against used claims of disruption to eliminate the Woodside AirTrain, a proposal that deserves far more consideration. Criteria 8 struck again, and it was a key part in the argument Rick Cotton made in his Streetsblog piece earlier this week. I don’t buy it (as a I explained in a Streetsblog rebuttal).
‘Avoiding disruption’ should not preclude a better transit outcome
But why did the Port Authority decide that one of its goals was to “design and construct a project that avoids substantial disruption to the neighborhoods where it is located”? This isn’t a goal of any other transit project in the region. After all, the Second Ave. Subway tore up the Upper East Side, a neighborhood far denser than any between the subway and LaGuardia in Queens, and the Port Authority’s own World Trade Center site still fences off the Lower Manhattan neighborhood and street grid while disrupting over the years two states’ subway systems. Gov. Cuomo’s plan to use eminent domain to acquire properties to build Penn Station South won’t be disruption-free either, and the concern that eminent domain takings will “substantially alter the character of adjacent blocks” seems to apply only to LaGuardia options but not to a Penn Station expansion.
Usually these are issues an agency mitigates when picking the highest and best transit option, when it came to the airport, avoiding disruption was suddenly grounds to follow a different path away from people, neighborhoods or thorny choices that strong leaders can make. Again, I ask why?
And so let me answer my own question: Why? Because that way, the Port Authority could credibly (or incredibly) eliminate every other option that provides a better connection to existing transit and better transit for under-served neighborhoods while bolstering Cuomo’s proposal. From the day Cuomo announce the Willets Point AirTrain in 2015, it has always seemed as though the fix was in, and sources have long told me Cuomo presented this routing and essentially ordered the PA and MTA to make it work. The Alternatives Analysis and its prickly criteria bear that out.
Now that the FAA has essentially endorsed the PA’s work in its own Alternatives Analysis summary (pdf) while also adding gondolas and helicopters to the mix ahead of bus improvements, the Backwards AirTrain is on the precipice of reality. People will use it it and when it’s built (though the PA’s projections [pdf] of Year 1 ridership in excess of the JFK AirTrain’s current annual total defies belief).
I’m not advocating for no transit to LaGuardia, but I’m advocating for doing it right. We’re making a mistake if we spend $2 billion on AirTrain that’s out of the way and projected to increase travel times for most airport-bound riders. Instead, the governor should use his considerable political capital to urge communities to prepare the disruption of construction of a true transit network that decreases travel times and adds ancillary benefits in the form of new subway stops through subway deserts. An extension of the N would be best, but a connection from Woodside would be a fine reality too. If only the governor saw it this way as well.