Home PANYNJ Laguardia AirTrain on ‘pause’ as Hochul gears up to pull the plug on Cuomo-era vanity project

Laguardia AirTrain on ‘pause’ as Hochul gears up to pull the plug on Cuomo-era vanity project

by Benjamin Kabak
The Laguardia AirTrain, a pet project of Andrew Cuomo’s, is now on life support as the Port Authority begins a new review.

The much-maligned Laguardia AirTrain may be on its last legs as the Port Authority has paused work on the project following an order by Governor Kathy Hochul to re-examine the plan. The decision doesn’t quite kill former Governor Andrew Cuomo’s crowning symbolism of his top-down, ‘me-first-and-only’ approach to transit planning, but facing lawsuits and criticism on all sides, the days are clearly numbered for the Willets Point-based backwards airtrain, as they should be.

This week’s pause had been in the works since Hochul took over. Sensing blood in the water, a strange coalition of East Elmhurst residents, environmentalists and transit advocates as well as all local politicians had banded together to press the new governor to halt the old governor’s flawed project, and the new governor sort of obliged.

Following seven weeks of lobbying by Queens politicians, Hochul announced, well, something on October 4. In a statement, she asked the Port Authority to look into “alternative mass transit solutions.” It wasn’t a pause, but it wasn’t a ringing endorsement of the AirTrain. She said:

“New Yorkers deserve world-class transportation to world-class airports. I have asked the Port Authority to thoroughly examine alternative mass transit solutions for reducing car traffic and increasing connectivity to LaGuardia Airport. We must ensure that our transportation projects are bold, visionary, and serve the needs of New Yorkers. I remain committed to working expeditiously to rebuild our infrastructure for the 21st century and to create jobs – not just at LaGuardia, but at all of our airports and transit hubs across New York.”

For a week or so, it wasn’t clear what Hochul’s ask meant. Was she canceling the AirTrain? Was she permitting it to move forward? Rick Cotton, head of the Port Authority, indicated that his agency planned to keep pushing forward on the AirTrain, and the project seemed to exist in a political limbo until the Port Authority released its own unattributed statement this week, just a few days before a deadline to respond to the Riverkeeper lawsuit, announcing the pause:

“At Governor Hochul’s request, the Port Authority is undertaking a thorough review of potential alternative mass transit options to LaGuardia Airport. The agency will work in close consultation with independent experts and stakeholders, and will complete its work as expeditiously as possible, consistent with the need for the review to be thorough and rigorous. During the review, the Port Authority will pause further action with respect to the LaGuardia AirTrain project.”

The AirTrain isn’t dead, but it’s pining for the Fjords. I’d be shocked if another minute of work happens to advance the Willets Point plan, and it seems the projects myriad opponents have won. Though what they’ve won remains to be seen, and the next few steps will determine if this is a real victory or just a Pyrrhic one.

As readers of my site know, I will not mourn the death of the AirTrain. As I wrote back in 2015, it was a bad project from the start, one with murky origins no one could pinpoint. One day, the Governor showed up a meeting and demanded the Port Authority and MTA find a way to justify the Willets Point plan even as analysis showed that it would save few people any time at all. It wasn’t worth the original $500 million budget, a figure the Port Authority later admitted they made up to placate Cuomo, and it certainly isn’t worth the current $2.1 billion price tag. To justify the project, the Port Authority rigged the alternatives analysis and environment impact statements to heavily favor only Cuomo’s plan rather than more useful subway connections or a simpler dedicated bus lane. When Riverkeeper, Guardians of Flushing Bay and the Ditmars Boulevard Block Association sued over the obviously flawed environmental studies, the writing was on the wall.

At the same time, numerous politicians used the void created by Cuomo’s resignation to finally speak out against the project. We can debate the political courage (or lack thereof) of waiting until Cuomo was out of office to jump, but once he left, jump they did. Those politicians who had been critics while Cuomo was still in power welcomed the new allies, but the upcoming fight over what’s next is a harder one that will fray the tenuous peace behind neighborhood groups that stray toward NIMBYism and transit advocates who want to see a real solution.

So far, in fact, that’s all that we’ve won: The right to keep fighting. It took six years from conception until the AirTrain was nearly ready for ground-breaking, and that was with a strong-willed governor willing to strong-arm the project through. That’s one of the reasons why the RPA, for instance, pushed against canceling the AirTrain even while knowing about the project’s dubious transit value.

Now, the governor will have to find a better plan and overcome skepticism in Queens. For example, New York State Senator Michael Gianaris objected to an extension of the N train back in the early 2000s while promoting the Willets Point plan then but now rightly objects to the Willets Point plan. He told Gotham Gazette’s Ben Max that he is open to the idea of a Laguardia subway extension over the Grand Central Parkway (skip to minute 42 of this podcast), but a plan that avoids temporary neighborhood disruptions won’t add subway access to residential and commercial areas without it. To me, that’s the wrong to right here.

The best way forward involves a combination of outcomes. In the immediate future, providing a dedicated bus connection from Jackson Heights and a dedicated bus lane through Laguardia would pay dividends while political leaders lay the groundwork for a subway connection to the airport, one that improves access through East Elmhurst and connects Laguardia to the subway. It won’t be an easy fight, and it will require coalition-building and a governor willing to fight the NIMBYs who will emerge. But it’s the right way forward.

I put canceling the AirTrain as number four on Hochul’s transit to do list, and she’s on the verge of doing it. But the second part is not letting this opportunity go to waste. If nothing comes of this other than six years of planning and no new plan for a better rail connection, all of this will have been for naught, and we’ll be in the same position we were two decades ago when the city scraped the N train extension, only this time we’ll have a nicer Laguardia no more accessible than it is today.

It’s a fate Hochul says she wants to avoid. ““We will offer world-class mass transit opportunities to get from LaGuardia to the city. I’ll get that done,” the governor promised on Wednesday, “but I want to take some breathing room to assess what’s been done in the past, what ideas were rejected and how we ended up with AirTrain in the first place.”

The next round of actions will speak louder than her words.

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15 comments

Andrew` October 14, 2021 - 9:11 am

The AirTrain plan never made sense as a transportation project because it was never intended to be a transportation project. It was clearly intended to boost real estate in Willets Point, by functionally making Willets Point an extension of the airport. It was couched as a transportation project so that it could vie for transportation funding, but all the arguments in the world that a different transportation project would have been superior to this one from a transportation perspective were doomed to failure, because the person shepherding the project had no interest whatsoever in transportation (and especially public transit). The only way to avoid the AirTrain project was to kill it off.

Andrew Gounardes was a teenager in the early 2000s. I assume you mean somebody else.

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Benjamin Kabak October 14, 2021 - 9:20 am

Thanks, Andrew. I constantly mix up Gounardes and Michael Gianaris for reasons that escape me. I’ve corrected the post.

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Peter L October 14, 2021 - 10:49 am

Y’All should have called this the Shea Shuttle from the get-go to highlight the fact that it didn’t go anywhere …

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Michael Dawkins October 14, 2021 - 12:27 pm

Although it was going in the wrong direction, I felt like it would’ve been better than nothing. I doubt any other plan is going pass thru as far as a rail connection.

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Andrew October 14, 2021 - 2:38 pm

The existing bus lines – primarily the Q70 SBS – get passengers to or from the airport faster than this AirTrain would.

Even better – use a tiny fraction of the money earmarked for this project and spend it to implement exclusive bus lanes.

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Kristian October 14, 2021 - 1:52 pm

Dear Benjamin,

Earlier this year I wrote a thesis for a proposed alternative to the LGA AirTrain. Would you be interested in reading it?

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Subutay Musluoglu October 14, 2021 - 5:22 pm

Ben – As always, thank you for this. You are spot on when you say “…a plan that avoids temporary neighborhood disruptions won’t add subway access to residential and commercial areas without it.” Further to that point, a significant issue has been the inability of transit agencies and project sponsors to effectively “sell” large expensive transit projects by failing to properly DEFEND them when challenged by shortsighted elected officials and NIMBYs, who are able to attract press attention and dominate the policy discussion. (Though in this case, the NIMBYs are right – LGA AirTrain is seriously flawed and deserves to be killed and buried).

The previously studied Astoria Line extension is the clearest illustration of project sponsors surrendering to an angry, vocal minority and discarding a project which had real utility and could have been built within a reasonable timeframe at moderate costs. The temporary construction impacts and the permanent aesthetic impact of a modern elevated guideway (running for a relatively short length), were never adequately explained and justified to the community. In that vacuum they presumed they were getting a structure no different in appearance and no less quiet than the existing Dual Contracts-era elevated structure. This was urban planning / political malfeasance.

Presuming that any new subway extension to LGA will most likely not be in tunnel and will be elevated for most, if not all, of its length, there will be some residential impacts regardless of the alignment. As such, similar opposition will arise again, which will require an inclusive political strategy that accommodates legitimate local concerns but does not concede the region’s needs to an angry, vocal minority. It certainly cannot be Cuomo-style bullying and must have broader support beyond the typical backing of well-connected interests and construction unions who do not care what gets built. The strategy will need to be in place well in advance to build consensus if we are to ever achieve effective rail access to the airport.

Your point on the RPA is also most appreciated. In the case of LGA AirTrain, their acquiescence was an expression that something, anything should be built, regardless of its severe shortcomings. This is emblematic of a broader issue with RPA, whose stance in recent years has been a bit confusing. On one hand they propose massive regional rail programs ranging in the tens of billions of dollars, recycled every decade or so (Rx, MetroLink, T-Rex). These proposals are legitimately justified and are long overdue but are unlikely to be built within the framework of our current regional governance and political structure.

On the other hand, RPA selectively ignores low hanging fruit such as reviving abandoned lines (Rockaway Beach Branch, Montauk Branch), leaving the advocacy for these corridors to smaller grassroots organizations who lack finances and political muscle. The one exception is their Triboro proposal on the NY Connecting RR ROW, but we shall see where that goes.

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marvin October 14, 2021 - 5:30 pm

Tens of years ago, there was a proposal to run a train up the Van Wyck (with a reverse stop at Jamaica) to LGA and then on to Manhattan via the outer roadways of the QB/59St/Koch Bridge to an eastside terminal. There was to be a stop at what is now the citifield station.

Obviously the one piece that got built was JFK to Jamaica.

If the the LGA shuttle was another installment in completing that plan and having a good link between the 2 airports (allowing for through ticketing, and shared services), the shuttle may be a good future looking idea.

If this is not the case, some version of extending the Astoria BMT to LGA (and beyond!!!) would serve all much better.

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adirondacker12800 October 14, 2021 - 8:02 pm

having a good link between the 2 airports (allowing for through ticketing, and shared services),
No airline is going to do that.
Why would anybody in their right mind do that? They can use an itinerary that allows them to walk across a concourse?
Why would people in metro New York spend money so that people, for example, in Boston can get cheaper flights to Pittsburgh?

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Sandro October 14, 2021 - 8:30 pm

Ben, what do you think about extending the N/W from Astoria to La Guardia?

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Tom October 15, 2021 - 12:31 pm

The problem with the LGA air train proposal is that it doesn’t go far enough. Jamaica would be the logical destination with Willets Point being a stop. Here we have a shovel ready project, ready to go. Now do we have to start all the approval and permitting processes to begin all over. No matter what you come up with, you’re going to have NIMBY resistance, as was the case in extending the N train. Maybe someday the envisioned project( a connection to Manhattan) will get done. I have my doubts, just seems so hard to get anything built in NY

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Sandro October 15, 2021 - 12:43 pm

why is Jamaica the logical destination? LGA is labelled as a domestic airport, so the logical destination is Manhattan, not further down in Queens. I think the only logical solution is the N/W extension, just because the the BMT broadway line travels in the key areas of Manhattan: times sq, herald qs, union sq, city hall (via the W or change to R)

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ChrisC October 16, 2021 - 3:18 pm

Jamaica so it could link to the JFK airtrain and LIRR services so people could avoid Penn if their destination was on Long Island?

Could cut a lot of road traffic between the two airports.

If the plan was to do that then I think it might have been a lot less objectional than jus going from LGA to Willets Point.

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Andre October 31, 2021 - 12:24 pm

One of the major problems with NYC’s transit system is that it is too Manhattan centric as it is. There are 7 million NYC residents who do not live in Manhattan. Another 14 million in the metro area… This projects problem was that it was not ambitious enough. There are 3 million people in Nassau and Suffolk. A lot of them fly out of LGA. This project should connect to all LIRR lines and all subway lines in Queens (which basically all go to Manhattan) and for good measure the Triboro rail that should connect The Bronx – Queens – Brooklyn. That would allow for millions of people to not “have to” use road transport to get to LGA. Major cities on the other side of the planet can do it. Frankly – we are pathetic.

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Larry penner October 15, 2021 - 5:22 pm

David defeated Goliath (Cuomo and all his Pay to Play Special Interest People such as consultants construction contractors and unions who sent him campaign contributions hoping for a piece of the $2 billion LaGuardia Air Train project) which Governor Kathy Hochul has put on hold. Since Cuomo failed to deliver, will they now ask Cuomo for refunds from the $18 million campaign reelection fund that he no longer needs?

In our new COVID-19 world, airlines, the Port Authority, NYC Transit subway and bus, Long Island and Metro North Rail Roads all have to reevaluate anticipated future ridership growth projections. Who has seen the updated anticipated ridership figures for the LaGuardia Air Train? Was there really going to be 9,000 daily riders? Is there an independent cost benefit analysis to justify the cost of this project? Who would go to a LIRR Station, wait for a train, change at Jamaica, then Woodside for a Port Washington train to Mets Willets Point to reach the Air Train? Most would to drive, take a car service, Uber or taxi, which would be faster and more convenient.
(Larry Penner — transportation advocate, historian and writer who previously worked for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions in capital projects and programs for the MTA, NYC Transit, Long Island Rail Road, Metro North Rail Road, MTA Bus, NYC Department of Transportation along with 30 other transit agencies in NY & NJ).

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