IT’S ALIVE! Cuomo Asking Trump for Bailout of LaGuardia AirTrain (And His Own Ego)

The governor seeks money for the unloved project as part of a coronavirus-stimulus infrastructure package.

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

It’s my way or the highway.

Gov. Cuomo said he’ll demand funding for his pet project, the LaGuardia AirTrain, in a meeting Wednesday with President Trump — but this time, the Excelsior standard-bearer indicated that his continued support for the much-reviled and bloated project is part of the elaborate scaffolding of his own ego.

“Forget your transit experts,” Cuomo told reporters on Tuesday when asked why he keeps pushing the AirTrain, which is unpopular among transit experts, who favor a subway extension that might bring broader benefits. The rest of the answer was telling:

You know what’s more unpopular with the people in the neighborhoods affected? The subway plan. So look, you have two options: funding is an issue and you have feasibility of the project. I don’t want a project that’s going to be in court for 150 years, and you kick the can down the road, which is what happens with so many public works. When I say I’m going to do something, I actually do it, which is a little different. I say I’m going to build the Mario Cuomo Bridge, I build it. I say I’m going to re-do tunnels, I do it. I say I’m going to build a new airport, and I do it, and I do it in real time and I want projects that are real instead of theoretical. “I have a great idea and in a perfect world we could do this.” Yeah, when the world is perfect, then, I’ll do it.

Of course, the governor offered other reasons for wanting to get the project done, namely that infrastructure spending is a key to the coronavirus recovery because it will “put Americans back to work” and is “common sense.”

And he reiterated a typical lament of travelers to the city: “New York is one of the only major cities that has no train from the airport into the central city,” he said.

Gov. Cuomo on Tuesday.
Gov. Cuomo on Tuesday.

“There is no better time to build than right now [when] you need to renew and repair this country’s economy and its infrastructure,” the governor added, name checking the “AirTrain to LaGuardia,” the Second Avenue Subway, and the cross-Hudson Gateway tunnel project as worthy of federal cash. The governor even put a rendering of the AirTrain in his famed daily Powerpoint for emphasis. 

The governor’s remarks come less than two weeks after the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the AirTrain’s sponsor, wrote to Congress asking for a $3-billion bailout for its beleaguered capital plan. At the time, it appeared that the “Wrong Way” AirTrain would be counted as a likely coronavirus casualty

In the May 13 letter, Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton and Chairman Kevin O’Toole warned that “enormous revenue declines” from a “collapse in traveller volume” — including a 97-percent decline in airport traffic — had forced the agency “to urgently reconsider its [$20-billion] capital plan — including drastic cuts to critical infrastructure projects across the region.”

Cotton later told NJ.com that insufficient federal aid meant, “We’re going to be looking at every project.”

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 the governor — 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.

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 governor’s revival of the AirTrain enervated some of the “transit experts” he dismissed. 

We won’t have restaurants, retail or any small businesses because no one could get their acts together to make better use of the city’s public space, but this AirTrain to Willets Point will save New York,” transit maven Ben Kabak of Second Ave. Sagas sarcastically tweeted.

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