Feds Boost Foundering LaGuardia AirTrain

The broke Port Authority is "pleased' with the FAA's draft environmental-impact statement.

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

The little-loved LaGuardia AirTrain got a boost on Friday from the Federal Aviation Administration — even as funding for the controversial project has dried up because of COVID-19.

The FAA’s draft Environmental Impact Statement, echoing earlier procedural documents, clears the ground for the $2-billion boondoggle — affirming that the FAA “has conducted a thorough and independent analysis of alternatives … and has concluded that the Proposed Action best meets the stated Purpose and Need and the Port Authority’s goals and objectives.” 

The FAA draft EIS comes as a salve for the foundering project. The “Backward AirTrain” — so named because its proposed route takes Manhattan-bound travelers further east into Queens before transferring to another train — had lately appeared to be in jeopardy as the revenues of its sponsor, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, dropped precipitously because of COVID, with air travel depressed for months because of the virus.

We’re pleased to see the federal environmental review process for the LaGuardia AirTrain project move forward,” Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton and Cchairman, Kevin O’Toole said in a joint statement. “We are one step closer to realizing the benefits of the project for the region.”

They claim the AirTrain would provide a ride into Manhattan for “millions upon millions of air travelers.”

The pair wrote congressional leaders in May asking for a $3-billion bailout to support the authority’s $37-billion capital plan, including the AirTrain — even though the Port Authority earlier had trumpeted the fact that the project would be financed by passenger-facility charges and not taxpayer money. Gov. Cuomo — the AirTrain’s biggest booster — has since sought President Trump’s assistance for the bailout, painting it as necessary for supporting construction jobs, even though Port Authority executives have acknowledged that LaGuardia air traffic won’t recover anytime soon.

Basically, the fate of the project lies in the hands of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has said that he opposes what he calls bailouts for Democrat-led states such as New York and New Jersey. (Of course, McConnell could lose his job in November.)

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

The AirTrain, which would run 1.5 miles between the Willets Point 7/LIRR station and LaGuardia, hugging the Grand Central Parkway, has garnered opposition from a host of quarters. Transit advocates argue that its route makes no sense, that it adds nothing to the transit system, and that it ignores better alternatives; fiscal conservatives, noting its ballooning price tag, think it is a wasteful white elephant; environmentalists charge it will hurt the Flushing Bay shoreline, and local homeowners worry it will damage their houses.

A major goal of the project is simply to supply off-airport parking for LaGuardia employees who chose to drive.

“The draft EIS shows how Cuomo has his thumb on the scale of this rigged process,” said transit expert Ben Kabak, who blogs at Second Avenue Sagas. “Unsurprisingly, the draft EIS repeats the claim that any alternative not have a ‘material effect to major infrastructure, transportation facilities or utilities,’ a non-legal standard intended to favor only the AirTrain. This process was flawed from the start and continues to dismiss alternatives that would improve transit through underserved neighborhoods and provide a direct connection to the airport. This project is in doubt due to the PA’s coronavirus-related budget crisis, and the feds shouldn’t bail it out without a better approach.” 

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents the area, opposes the AirTrain and the proposed federal bailout, declaring recently that “no federal COVID-19 relief funding directed to the Port Authority [should] be used for the construction of an AirTrain.”

AirTrain critic Frank Taylor, president of the Ditmars Boulevard Homeowners Association, called the FAA’s environmental review “meritless” and “premature” given that air travel has tanked and the Port Authority is broke.

The proposal “is completely detached from the current pandemic and post-pandemic reality,” Taylor said. “With air traffic and mass-transit ridership completely eroded, the entire factual and economic foundation for the current plan has been rendered obsolete-and that’s ignoring the fact that even before COVID-19, the Port failed to really examine more sensible alternative routes.

The project has vociferous supporters, however, among the building-trades unions and the big construction companies that line Cuomo’s campaign coffers. In a nod to them, Cotton and O’Toole said in their statement that the project “will provide thousands and thousands of good paying jobs and contribute critically important economic activity to help drive the desperately needed recovery from the COVID-19 crisis.” 

The publication of the draft EIS opens the next phase of the AirTrain’s regulatory odyssey. The FAA will hold online workshops and hearings on the document on Sept. 22, 23 and 24 in order to solicit more public comment. (Earlier public-comment sessions drew mostly negative reactions.) The document and associated online links can be found at lgaaccesseis.com.

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