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.