Cuomo’s ‘Wrong Way’ LaGuardia AirTrain Is Ready for Take Off

An FAA rubber stamp clears the way for the construction of the people mover in East Elmhurst, Queens.

A rendering shows what the AirTrain station would look like at Willets Point. Image: AbetterwaytoLGA.com
A rendering shows what the AirTrain station would look like at Willets Point. Image: AbetterwaytoLGA.com

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s multi-billion-dollar LaGuardia AirTrain got its final stamp of approval from the Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday. Construction on the 1.5-mile automated people mover that critics claim is just another one of the embattled governor’s “vanity projects” is slated to begin this summer.

The AirTrain was originally proposed back in 2015 with a price tag of $500 million, but the project has since ballooned to upward of $2 billion. The tracks will run for a mile and a half between the airport and Long Island Rail Road station at Willets Point, along the Grand Central Parkway and the Flushing Bay promenade.

Early on, critics complained that its “backwards” route wouldn’t save people time, because it sends travelers further east from LaGuardia — and to a less-useful LIRR line — before doubling back toward the airport (or, during the reverse trip, Manhattan). And transit analysts have pointed out that it’s a mistake to spend so much money on something that adds so little to the city’s overall transportation network.

“We’re getting a crappy AirTrain because Cuomo decided that’s what he wanted and he made sure artificial requirements were assessed in the EIS to get it,” said Ben Kabak, who has penned several anti-AirTrain op-eds in Streetsblog, referring to the Environmental Impact Statement that the feds approved in March. The EIS concluded that the project was the best option for providing rail access to the newly renovated Queens airport, and cleared any environmental hurdles, despite local community groups warning that the documents only raised more questions and concerns. 

“We’re going to lose a once-in-a-lifetime chance to build a good transit connector to LaGuardia with subways to East Elmhurst, and I wouldn’t blame anyone who wants to sue to try to stop it. What a shame,” Kabak added.

The feds’ retort to Kabak and other critics came Tuesday in a letter to the environmental group Riverkeeper, which had many of the same objections to the project as Kabak.

“Your assertion also referenced transit alternatives that might better serve the region,” FAA Administrator Steve Dickson wrote to Riverkeeper Senior Attorney Mike Dulong. “The purpose and need for the project is to improve access to LGA. It is not a regional transit project.”

Riverkeeper is reviewing the Record of Decision and “weighing our options,” Dulong said.

The area’s Congressional representative, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, also objected to the project, citing the FAA’s lack of transparency and unwillingness to seriously consider other options. Others have pointed out that a couple of car-free, dedicated busways between the MTA’s 74th Street/Roosevelt Avenue station in Jackson Heights or to the 61st Street and LIRR stations in Woodside that could ferry passengers to and from the airport would be much faster and cheaper.

The project also antagonized environmentalists because of how it will affect the fragile environment around Flushing Bay.

The Port Authority counters that the AirTrain is the best, greenest transit option that would “remove millions of vehicles from congested highways and local roads each year” and would “create 3,000 construction jobs and $500 million in contracting opportunities for minority and women-owned businesses.”

Cuomo celebrated the feds’ decision on his pet project.

“The new LaGuardia Airport — the first new airport in the United States in over 25 years and the front door to New York — deserves a reliable, efficient, and affordable transit connector worthy of its destination. With the Federal Aviation Administration’s approval today of the LaGuardia AirTrain, that’s exactly what New Yorkers will get,” the governor said in a statement. “This is the culmination of years of advocacy by this administration and a key moment in our efforts to rebuild New York’s infrastructure for the future. As we come out of the COVID crisis, our state and our country have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to invest in a resilient, transformative, and interconnected future, and today’s announcement is a testament to our ‘all aboard’ commitment to seizing it, in partnership with the Biden administration and Secretary Buttigieg.”

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