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Rest in Fleece: The ‘Backwards’ LaGuardia AirTrain Could Be a Victim of COVID-19

9:12 AM EDT on May 16, 2020

A rendering of the proposed LGA AirTrain. Image: Governor’s Office

Count the “backwards” LaGuardia AirTrain as another coronavirus casualty: The little-loved, $2-billion railway is among the regional construction projects that seem likely to die because of huge losses sustained by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

That’s the takeaway from a letter Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton and Chairman Kevin O’Toole wrote this week asking the leaders of the U.S. House and Senate for a $3-billion recovery package — as well as the opinion of experts who have long watched the controversial project.

The May 13 letter warned that “enormous revenue declines” from a “collapse in traveller volume” — including a 97-percent decline in airport traffic — had placed “in very serious jeopardy” the Port Authority’s $20-billion capital construction plan.

The revenue losses are forcing the agency “to urgently reconsider its capital plan – including drastic cuts to critical infrastructure projects across the region,” Cotton and O’Toole wrote.

Port Authority spokeswoman Lindsay Kryzak declined to answer specific questions from Streetsblog about the AirTrain’s fate but noted that all projects in the agency’s capital plan “are at high risk.”

Others were more blunt.

“They have to cancel this project,” said Manhattan Institute fiscal expert Nicole Gelinas, adding that the AirTrain, a boondoggle whose costs have ballooned four-fold during planning, “was marginal before when [the Port Authority] had some money” but is particularly expendable “now they have no money.”

Gelinas said that the Port Authority subsidizes its considerable losses, such as the World Trade Center rebuild, the PATH train and Port Authority Bus Terminal, with some $1.5 billion in profits from its airports and toll roads. Now, she said, “the profit-making entities have essentially indefinitely vanished, and so they need to conserve all this cash for critical capital projects like maintaining existing bridges and tunnels and for the mass-transit system.” 

Some 54 Port Authority "stakeholders," including the presidents of giant construction firm Skanska USA and several building-trade unions, also wrote to the feds in support of the bailout.

The AirTrain has provoked controversy since its inception five years ago over issues of cost, accessibility, practicality, its circuitous route, and the damage it could do to the environment and the neighborhood. The proposed elevated people-mover — a favorite project of Gov. Cuomo — would run 1.5 miles from LaGuardia Airport in East Elmhurst alongside the Grand Central Parkway and then along the Flushing Bay promenade to Willets Point, where it would connect to the 7 subway line and the Long Island Rail Road’s Port Washington branch, a spur that does not connect to the Jamaica hub.

The proposed route of the LGA AirTrain runs along the Grand Central Parkway and Flushing Bay to Willets Point. Image: Governor's Office
The proposed route of the LGA AirTrain runs along the Grand Central Parkway and Flushing Bay to Willets Point. Image: Governor's Office

Critics and transit analysts complain that the "backwards" route would send travelers further east from LaGuardia — and to a less-useful LIRR line — before they would double back toward the airport (or, during the reverse trip, Manhattan). Some experts believe it won’t save travelers time and makes little sense, especially given its cost, which has ballooned to more than $2 billion, up from the original $500 million.

Other objections have centered on insufficiency of the 7 and the Port Washington trains, as well as questions about the AirTrain’s own service assumptions and construction disruptions. Further, the AirTrain station at Willets Point seems designed more as a remote parking lot for the airport than as a full-fledged addition to the transit network. The area's member of Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has registered both procedural and substantive objections to the project.

The Port Authority has repeatedly said that the AirTrain was being built with “no taxpayer dollars” and would be funded through passenger facility charges. Now, with air travel down drastically and the Port Authority going to the feds with its hand out, that claim no longer appears viable.

Transit advocates happily danced on the project’s grave.

“It’s long been documented that the Backwards AirTrain is a boondoggle with no clear transit benefits that was chosen as the preferred alternative only because the governor pushed the issue,” said transit maven Ben Kabak, whose Second Avenue Sagas blog has chronicled the controversies around the AirTrain’s planning. “The feds should either force the Port Authority to develop an alternative that improves transit through underserved neighborhoods (such as a subway extension through Queens to the airport) or decline to permit bailout funding to be used for this project. This is a golden opportunity to create better transit for everyone.” 

But AirTrain critic Frank Taylor, president of the Ditmars Neighborhood Association, injected a note of caution. “We still don’t know for sure” that it’s dead, he said, and the problems caused by related LaGuardia construction, such as cracks in the foundations of local homes and poor air quality, “still haven’t been addressed.”

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