Could a shift in federal policy save New York City from the the misguided Willets Point LaGuardia AirTrain? Could Queens — and New York City — find a way to provide a rail link to LaGuardia while improving transit through Queens? It may still take a Hail Mary, or a new governor, to stop Andrew Cuomo’s favorite rail link, but the feds may have just thrown us a lifeline if someone is willing to take it.
In a significant policy shift published one day after former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao resigned during the waning days of the Trump Administration, the FAA has said that airport-based passenger charges can now be used for rail construction that doesn’t exclusively serve airports. It’s an arcane federal policy shift, one that happens with little fanfare on a regular basis, but one with the potential to upend for the better the way Americans travel to their airports.
To understand this policy shift, allow me to conduct a brief history lesson. Many airport-based transit projects are funded through passenger facility charges (or PFCs) that the agency operating an airport can collect to fund a variety of airport-related infrastructure projects. These projects must be tailored to the airport itself, and in 2004, the FAA issued clarifying guidance that PFCs could be used for surface transportation projects only if they “exclusively serve airport traffic.” The FAA also determined that the facility in question “can experience no more than incidental use by nonairport users.”
The interpretation of this limitation has been extremely narrow for nearly two decades, and it has led to a variety of overpriced and stunted airport transit projects. In essence, it forces airports to serve as terminals for rail lines or requires agencies to build proprietary systems that serve only airport customers. Rail lines cannot pass through airports, thus severely restricting planning. It is, as Aaron Gordon explained on Vice a few weeks ago, the origin of the United States’ crappy airport trains.
The PFCs are one of the more underdiscussed elements of the LaGuardia AirTrain. While the Willets Point routing, the so-called backwards airtrain, is championed by the governor, always has been and always will be, it’s also one of the easier routes to fund because a proprietary airport-only system qualifies for PFCs under the 2004 guidance. The LaGuardia AirTrain would be most definitely a system that exclusively serves airport traffic. Even if the Governor had wanted to propose a transit extension through Queens, the spur would have to terminate at the airport, and the PFCs could cover only the airport-based part of the route. It’s not fatal to a better transit plan, but the Willets Point plan requires no compromise. It can be funded entirely through PFCs. And why spend state money on transit when you can just spend airport passenger dollars instead?
But the times, they are a changin’, and the FAA just opened up a path to better airport-based transit planning. The new policy, available here as a PDF, has been in the works since 2016, but the past four years has hardly seen a federal administration friendly to transit. Now, though, the FAA has decided that rail projects should not be treated as road projects, and PFCs can be used to fund a variety of transit projects that serve airports and continue onward. It would allow, for instance, for PFCs to be used for an on-airport LIRR stop at JFK that continues east past the airport or a transit plan that includes LaGuardia as one of many stops, whether or not the airport is the terminal.
The policy shift focuses on the “fundamental differences between railway systems and road systems.” The FAA has finally realized that while roads are part of a complex network of, pieces of which are funded at various levels of government, rail systems are not. “On-airport rail access projects, on the other hand, are planned, funded, constructed, operated, and used differently than on-airport road projects,” the new guidance notes. “By their nature, passenger rail and rail transit aggregate passenger traffic along fixed routes with a limited number of stops, each with their own justification and purpose. Users of road infrastructure have more flexibility and control in determining their route than users of rail, who are limited in their options. Non-airport users of rail are not taking advantage of the airport portions of a railway system by choice, but are likely to be passing through the airport because they cannot use the railway system to their destination without doing so. Thus, the distributed network of roads, as compared to the fixed path of rail, justifies the differentiated treatment that Congress has now ordained.”
The FAA has also nodded to the reality of urban development in the 21st Century. While airports were once on the urban periphery, sprawl has subsumed them. “It may no longer make sense for a downtown railway or transit line to terminate at the airport, where there exists a pool of potential users beyond the airport,” the policy statement notes. What took them so long to figure this out anyway?
The new policy allows for a complex funding equation for transit projects that feature a mix of airport and non-airport uses. Transit agencies can pro-rate the cost based on ridership projections; calculate the cost of a hypothetical stand-alone airport based people mover; or calculate the difference in cost between a route that bypasses an airport vs. the cost of a through-line configuration. While the FAA prefers proration, none of these are mandatory, and municipalities have discretion to apply the calculation they see fit. I’d imagine using the hypothetical cost of a proprietary people mover may be appealing too as those systems often require significant investment in rolling stock and technology that extending an existing transit line may not. The FAA did stress that the PFCs can be applied only to on-airport parts of the project so an N train extension, for example, would still require state funding for any stations outside of the airport.
Interestingly, while improving airport access should be a goal for airlines whose employees need fast and reliable travel to work and whose passengers need the same, various airlines and their lobbying groups spoke out against the proposed change. Both Delta and the International Air Transport Association objected to airport fees being used for non-airport infrastructure. This is short-sighted and an incorrect reading of the FAA’s change, and these objections did not carry the day. As the FAA astutely noticed, additional rail capacity can “reduce roadway traffic congestion, thus making the airport more attractive to airline passengers, particularly in an area with multiple airports.”
So can this policy shift save us from the misguided LaGuardia AirTrain? In one sense, despite my optimism, the answer is “no” due to politics. The heavy finger of the governor is weighing on the scale in favor of the Willets Point routing, and as a LGA terminal for an N train extension would have been eligible for PFC funding prior to this policy shift, not much has changed. But it should restart the conversation. An N train extension — or any other route that adds transit service to Queens — is far more useful for Queens residents and for airport travelers who want to head to Manhattan and not away from it. Thanks to the FAA, the Port Authority has the political and policy cover to shift its planning, and for the sake of the city, it should revisit a better transit link to LaGuardia.
Yet another example of smart deregulation by the previous administration. The word “deregulation” often gets a bad rap, bringing to mind images of polluting smokestacks on virgin land, but in practice it often just means removing onerous and poorly thought out rules such as this one. Ask yourself: if you agree with this instance of deregulation, on a topic you know more about than the average person (since you’re reading this blog), then isn’t it possible that when you reflexively rebel against other instances of deregulation you’re playing the part of Delta here – not fully realizing the nuances of the issue? I for one support these efforts. Thank you President Trump 🙂
In case this wasn’t clear in the post, the Trump Admin buried this. The rulemaking process started in 2014 and the rule was proposed in 2016. It came out the day after Elaine Chao left and wasn’t publicized widely until the Biden team took over DOT. Trump deserves no credit for this. He tried to delay and bury it for as long as possible due to the corporate airline opposition to the rule and the administration’s general hostility to public transit.
This is long overdue.
The Astoria line should branch to LGA, and then in fact continue through the airport (sorry east elmhurst residents) to a stop at Willets Point / Citifield (centralized JFK and LGA car rental and transfer to Flushing and east) and then down the Van Wyck branching north of Jamaica for both Jamaica and JFK services.
*yes hybrid cars (shorter and dual power systems will be needed for JFK train
*Kennedy and LGA would be able to have reliable through ticketing
*Manhattan, Queens and Long Island would gain reliable transit to both airports relieving the roads (especially the the Van Wyck!) via direct service and several good connections
*Service on the Broadway BMT local could be: 10 tph to/terminating in Astoria and 15tph through LGA/Citifield with 10 going into Jamaica and 5 going to JFK leaving plenty of current airtrain capacity for both JFK to Jamaica and JFK to Howard Beach runs.
*The middle Astoria track could carry the new services express in the AM toward Manhattan and PM away.
While the default “good idea” (as opposed to our governor’s truly awful idea) is generally to extend the Astoria line to LaGuardia in some manner, there are several problems with that. The NIMBY issue is a big one, and the need to stop at a half-dozen or so intermediate stations would slow airport service.
Why has there been no serious consideration of the idea to turn the SAS phase II line to the EAST at 125th Street (instead of, or in addition to, the turn west toward Park Avenue)? This would give the line a straight shot across the East River, Randalls Island, along the north shore of Queens and right into the airport. The shoreline is now 100% industrial, with not a NIMBY in sight, and the airport service – feeding the upper East Side and then the BMT Broadway trunk – would not need to be impeded by local traffic.
It does make sense to establish some way for Queens residents to access this, so there might be provision for a stop somewhere along the shore with a transfer station (maybe from a short extension of the Astoria line to the north). I see a lot of bang for the buck in such an approach, but perhaps there are considerations that have not occurred to me.
I say bust out the eminent domain tools. Buildings have been knocked down for far less beneficial projects. NIMBY this, Astoria!
A direct subway extension to LaGuardia Airport was always the better option. It would also benefit many two fare (bus to subway) riders. There is also a time savings by eliminating switching from the Air Train to either the LIRR or #7 subway at Willits Point. A one seat ride via the subway would be more attractive to transit users. Governor Cuomo, Port Authority Chairman Cotton, their consultants along with labor unions, and construction contractors would benefit by the current $2.05 billion Air Train project. They have always refused to acknowledge that their promised thirty minute trip from LaGuardia to midtown Manhattan via the Air Train, LIRR or #7 subway is a fantasy. FHWA has yet to complete the NEPA process and issue a finding. There is still time at the 11th hour before the shovel goes into the ground for the Air Train to cancel this boondoggle. Perhaps Cuomo’s future resignation due to his twin COVD-19 nursing home and sexual harassment scandals could derail the project.
(Larry Penner — transportation advocate, historian, advocate and writer who previously worked for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for grants supporting billions in capital projects and programs on behalf of the MTA along with 30 other transit agencies in NY & NJ).
This looks like something that should be dealt with almost entirely with Port Authority money. This is directly in their wheelhouse.
The plan I see should be as follows:
The current JFK AirTrain terminates at Jamaica. That train should be extended to Harlem 125th St over the Triboro and pass/serve LGA on the way. The next phase should be to connect that terminus at 125th St to Secaucus Junction. This would permit a 3 seat ride from JFK to Newark. A future phase could potentially share ROW from Secaucus to Newark Airport, allowing a one seat ride. This would provide an alternative to ESA in case one of the Unions decided to strike again, and also provide a pathway to dealing with single airport disasters. Again, this is entirely in PA’s wheelhouse, and would be a good addendum to PATH’s coverage as well. Hoboken to Secaucus on PATH would be an interesting link, but it’d have to share existing heavy rail ROW and require significant underground work, I reckon.
In follow-up, I’d see attaching underneath the GWB as an interesting way to cross the Hudson instead of drowning tubes. The NJ side would require many ED takings.
People (including myself) propose very grand ideas but we are now in an era of where we just went through devastation including financial
A cheap, effective solution:
using the #7 subway track turnout for the corona yards, have the # 7 train from manhattan branch over the grand central parkway to LGA – maybe 6 tph (one train every 10 minutes = average wait 5 minutes) leaving plenty of service to/from main street
*The only new station required is at the airport
*transfers to lirr (all lines) at woodside
*transfers to ind at roosevelt/bdwy
*transfers to broadway bmt at QB Plaza
*Transfers at Grand Central and Times Square
*Corona yards and repair shops could still be used thus not requiring that new infrastructure
That’s actually going to run into logistical issues, since some have said branching the 7 is the worst idea. Plus it’s also indirect.
The real cheapest solution is to extend the Astoria Line north via 31st Street and 19th Avenue. No need for complex branching.
The big problem with branching off the 7 is it cuts the capacity to Flushing, and morning trains are already pretty full when they depart Flushing.
It’s probably not impossible, but seems less than optimal. It’d make more sense to extend the Flushing line east, where there is clearly demand for more transit, without branching.
Express 7 trains are crowded leaving Flushing in the morning. Local 7’s are not. Also, Main Street can’t turn the entire amount of 7 local and express trains, so they start some 7 locals at Willets Point. Likewise, in the evening some 7 locals go out of service at Willets Point (often with a reverse move out of the station) or 111th Street. And these pm trains tend to empty out after Junction Blvd. I don’t think it’s too far-fetched of an idea to have those trains branch off from the 7 line.
I don’t particularly like this project, but it feels like a case where the hysterics are a bit over the top. It shouldn’t be built because it’s a sub-optimal, but if it is built it won’t be useless. It’ll probably just end up serving a different population than it was intended to serve.
The N & W to LaGuardia would be a good idea. If you have the trains turn on either 19 or 20 Av and have a station on Steinway and/or Hazen St. before stopping at LGA it would be a very resourceful line.
The former regulation is why the JFK Airtrain dead ends at Jamaica Station (which was not the original plan) As a compromise, the JFK Airtrain rolling stock was made compatible with NYC Subway should things ever change.
This will undoubtedly be unpopular here, but if there’s no budget to extend the Astoria line (and I hope everybody is acquainted with all the expensive engineering challenges involving high viaducts on the GCP over the Amtrak line or tunneling under the runway if a more northern route were used), I could envision the planned Airtrain route now being adapted into a branch of the LIRR Port Washington line from Willets Point with short trains providing a LGA-GCT or NYP fast shuttle (If the 7 train had the capacity I’d also favor a branch on it for an 8 train, but we already know there’s no capacity there). With standard LIRR equipment there would be no need for any specialized maintenance facility either, just a switch onto the existing LIRR line as with the Heathrow Express. The moaning about going east first from the airport (for a whole 1.5 miles, that’s the length of my Mass Pike exit ramp onto 495) before going west to Manhattan is a red herring. You might as well cry every time you have to loop around the Jersey helix approach to the Lincoln Tunnel. If you take the Metro yellow line from Reagan National Airport into DC, that route goes west before going east. It’s still convenient and fast. Ditto the current JFK Airtrain, looping around all the terminals and serving Long Islanders as well as NYC travelers.
No capacity on for 6 #7 tph (one every 10 minutes = avg wait of 5 minutes) to terminate at LGA instead of Flushing?
Create the capacity by extending the underused IND Queens Blvd local through (or around) the Corona yards up to the LIE and east to 188 Street (or beyond) with stops at 188, 164, Kissena (Queens College), Main Street and Jewel Ave. You will diverted enough traffic (subway and incoming bus) from the Flushing terminal to allow for more than the 6tph (#7’s) to branch to LGA. You also will not need a new train yard.
Great news and long over due
Too bad Hillary and Schumer didn’t do anything when they were in office for NY.