Queens Coalition Brings Last-Ditch Effort to Sink ‘Wrong Way’ LaGuardia AirTrain

Local groups ask Cuomo to halt plans so that the state can conduct an independent environmental review.

A rendering of the proposed LGA AirTrain. Coronavirus-related Port Authority budget shortfalls are imperiling its future. Image: Governor's Office
A rendering of the proposed LGA AirTrain. Coronavirus-related Port Authority budget shortfalls are imperiling its future. Image: Governor's Office

Local Queens groups and their transit and environmental allies are gearing up for a last-ditch effort to stop the LaGuardia AirTrain — a little-loved project whose cost has ballooned fourfold since it was proposed in 2015.

The Sensible Way to LaGuardia Coalition — comprising groups of residents, businesses and environmentalists in East Elmhurst, Corona, Jackson Heights and Flushing  — is demanding that Gov. Cuomo halt the proposed project until there can be an independent review of alternatives. The organizations also want to involve New York City government in the review, possibly through City Council hearings, saying that Mayor de Blasio has abdicated his responsibility for city streets and neighborhoods to the state and Governor Cuomo.

The AirTrain — which is moving ahead after the Federal Aviation Administration’s environmental review ruled out a number alternatives in November — would run 1.5 miles from LaGuardia in East Elmhurst on raised pylons alongside the Grand Central Parkway and then along the Flushing Bay promenade before turning inland, where it would connect to the 7 train and the Long Island Rail Road’s Port Washington branch, a trunk line that does not connect to the Jamaica hub.

Many transit experts think that the route, which would draw Manhattan-bound travelers further east from LaGuardia before they would double back toward the center of town, won’t save travelers time and makes little sense, especially given its cost, which is now $2 billion, up from $500 million just four years ago. Moreover, the 7 line is served by narrow-body, overcrowded trains that would be hard pressed to accommodate passengers with luggage. The LIRR Port Washington trains, for their part, are little used and run only twice an hour — and, most important, do not provide service through Jamaica, the region’s gateway.

The proposed route of the LGA AirTrain runs along the Grand Central Parkway and Flushing Bay to Willets Point. Image: Off of Gov. Andrew m. Cuomo
The proposed route of the LGA AirTrain runs along the Grand Central Parkway and Flushing Bay to Willets Point. Image: Governor’s office

Given these considerations, they argue, the AirTrain represents a poor use of public money when other transit options could accomplish more without creating an expensive system serving relatively few people: about 18,000 daily trips in 2025 and 23,000 daily trips by 2045, or 17 to 18 percent of passengers to the airport, by the estimates of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Alternatives include investing in the current bus lines to the airport, the Select Bus Service M60 from Harlem and the Q70 from Woodside. Other alternatives that were bruited as recently as a decade ago included extending the N/W line three miles to the airport, but that encountered local opposition and so gained no political champions.

The influential Regional Plan Association was pushing an AirTrain to the LIRR station in Woodside, which would allow connections to 11 LIRR lines as well the 7 subway. But it dropped the notion last June, saying that a Willets Point route “could still substantially improve access to LaGuardia if done properly and could be achieved at a lower cost than the Woodside option.”

“In a time of scarce resources and new technologies, we should think hard about whether massive infrastructure projects are the right solution to our transit challenges,” said Nick Sifuentes of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. “Oftentimes, good old-fashioned bus service is just as good, if not better than, rail — and at a tenth of the cost or less. Dramatically upscaling service on the routes that serve the airport, like the M60 and the Q70, with full traffic separation and increased frequency, would be a very good start; with network redesigns under way right now, the timing is perfect.”

And with new autonomous technologies coming online, Sifuentes said, “We could instead look at a dedicated, fully separated busway that would speed passengers from subway stations to LaGuardia on autonomous buses.”

Sensible Way “consulted numerous transit experts who believe that there will be greater benefit to the entire city to invest in infrastructure that is … more cohesively integrated into the existing public transit system, rather than overloading an over-used subway line and adding service to an under-utilized rail route,” the group wrote to Cuomo on Dec. 20. 

The coalition further noted that the route along the Grand Central and Flushing Bay raises environmental questions and would hinder public access to the Flushing Bay promenade. Even worse, from the point of view of transit and the public, the project seeks to build parking spaces for 1,000 vehicles for airport employees and others at Willets Point, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs LaGuardia. That would encourage driving and the road carnage and pollution that come with it. 

The letter comes as the FAA tries to explain at two public meetings in East Elmhurst in mid-January why it ruled out 47 possible alternatives. Next, the FAA will draft an environmental impact statement. Comments gathered from the public by the FAA earlier this year as part of the AirTrain environmental review were mostly negative.

“We need an independent review of the alternatives analysis before this becomes another heavy handed, top-down project masquerading as community-approved infrastructure,” said Rebecca Pryor, program coordinator at Guardians of Flushing Bay and Riverkeeper, one of the letter’s signers.

Other signers took issue with the lack of involvement of the mayor in a matter that so affects city residents.

“The mayor has been non-existent in this process,” said Frank Taylor, another signer, who leads the homeowner group Ditmars Boulevard Block Association. “Our Councilman [Francisco Moya] has done nothing. We pay taxes. It’s taxation without representation!”

An independent environmental review is a hard ask because it must be funded by the state. There is however, a precedent: In order to satisfy community concerns, New York City recently funded an independent review of the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project, a $1.45-billion scheme to ward off the ravages of climate change by raising the height of the East River Park.

Asked for comment, the governor’s press shop punted to the Port Authority, which sought the thin common ground.

“We agree with Sensible Way: it is irresponsible and indefensible that LaGuardia Airport lacks mass rail access,” said PA spokeswoman Lindsay Kryzak, adding that the agency “is fully committed to working with the local community.” But Kryzak added that the FAA scoping process “has been extremely transparent and thorough” and studied “47 alternative routes for mass transit” before ruling them out.  The PA earmarked more than $2 billion for the LGA AirTrain in its budget in October.

City Hall admitted that it had bowed out of the larger planning process, but claimed is still involved. “While this is a state-run project, we will continue to work with the governor and Port Authority to ensure the interests of the community are respected,” said City Hall spokewoman Olivia Lapeyrolerie.

Others signers of the letter were J. James Carriero of the Ditmars Boulevard Block Association; Nuala Dougherty of the Jackson Heights Beautification Group; John Choe of the Flushing Chamber of Commerce; and East Elmhurst residents Leticia Ochoa and James Mongeluzo, a transit activist.

The FAA’s next public meetings on the AirTrain are Jan. 14 and 15 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. in the Grand Ballroom of the New York LaGuardia Airport Marriott, 102-05 Ditmars Boulevard, East Elmhurst.

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