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.