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Hochul Calls for ‘Alternatives’ to LaGuardia AirTrain — Possibly Dooming Cuomo’s Boondoggle

The governor has apparently killed her predecessor’s pet project, the “wrong way” LaGuardia AirTrain. Graphic: Streetsblog photo composite

Gov. Hochul on Monday ordered the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to find alternatives to the "backwards" LaGuardia AirTrain, the little-loved, $2 billion boondoggle/pet project of her disgraced predecessor.

"I have asked the Port Authority to thoroughly examine alternative mass transit solutions for reducing car traffic and increasing connectivity to LaGuardia Airport," Hochul said about the proposed, 1.5-mile, elevated people mover, which earned the soubriquet "backwards" for its circuitous route that drags Manhattan-bound riders further east to Willets Point in Queens and also inconveniences would-be Long Island Rail Road customers, who would have to make multiple transfers.

"We must ensure that our transportation projects are bold, visionary, and serve the needs of New Yorkers," Hochul continued. "I remain committed to working expeditiously to rebuild our infrastructure for the 21st century and to create jobs — not just at LaGuardia, but at all of our airports and transit hubs across New York."

The (perhaps flabbergasted) Port Authority had no immediate response to Hochul's break from the past, referring reporters to statements made by its executive director (and holdover from the Cuomo Administration) Rick Cotton, last Thursday at its regular board meeting, where Cotton was "Yes, Ma'am"-ing his new boss.

“I have had communication and conversations with Gov. Hochul as she indicated," Cotton said. "She asked for further conversations. And of course, we will be responding to all of her questions and engaging with her to every extent that she desires.”

Hochul's latest statement came hours before AirTrain opponents, including State Sens. Jessica Ramos and Leroy Comrie, both Queens Democrats, held a rally to oppose the AirTrain and, as such, shook up the New York transportation world. The Federal Aviation Administration — in a process that some charged was fixed on behalf of Cuomo — ruled out  47 potential alternatives in July. Those alternative included an extension of the N subway, a ferry, dedicated busways (five buses already go to LaGuardia), and a variety of others.

The AirTrain's route — running between the airport and the 7 and LIRR stations at Mets/Willets Point along the Grand Central Parkway and the Flushing Bay Promenade — long drew ire because of the inconvenience of those cumbersome connections, which are far from transit hubs, such as the LIRR's Jamaica station or the MTA's Roosevelt Avenue/74th Street station in Jackson Heights.

"The layout is like spaghetti. We never liked the project. People want to go to New York without having to sweat, and there are better options," Comrie told Newsday.

For years, boosters of the project could fall back on federal law which forbade the use of passenger-facility fees collected from airport users for off-airport improvements. But earlier this year, in one of the last acts of the Trump administration, the FAA cleared the way for those airline passenger charges to be used on “rail lines that do not exclusively serve the airport” — a move that opened up other possibilities.

The New York Post initially headlined its breaking story that Hochul had pulled the plug on Cuomo's project, but AirTrain opponents reacted more cautiously.

"This is great movement in the right direction," tweeted Ramos, who urged Hochul to go further and kibosh the project. "The next step is to define with more clarity what this means in practice. Does this mean the PA will have to produce a new environmental impact study? What about the FAA, where employees raised concerns about the approval process?" She was referring to stories that highlighted concerns voiced in FAA documents that the Port Authority wasn't being entirely forthcoming about its development plans around the AirTrain station.

The environmental group Riverkeeper and some local not-for-profits recently sued the FAA to stop the AirTrain's construction while the court mulled its petition, prompting the FAA to consider a delay, Newsday reported. Watchdog Reinvent Albany, for its part, showed that the project's price-per-ride was exorbitant, and underscored a point first made by Streetsblog, that the AirTrain would be "an extremely expensive shuttle service for airport employees parking their cars, long-term parkers, rental-car customers and taxi drop-offs" that would not rid streets of as many cars as advertised. Preliminary construction on the AirTrain was supposed to have started in the summer, but it's unclear whether it got off the ground; the Port Authority declined to answer questions about it.

John Orcutt, one of the co-authors of the Reinvent Albany analysis, didn't hide his skepticism about Hochul's statement:

"Gov. Hochul's call is the right first step in producing a more useful transit connection through Queens and to the airport, but that's the easy part," added transit analyst Ben Kabak, whose Second Avenue Sagas blog — along with Streetsblog — featured criticism and offered alternatives to the project. "The hard part is moving forward on another plan that improves access through underserved areas of Queens while building the political support for that plan. While I'm happy to see the governor reassess the 'backwards AirTrain,' the harder part is creating the moment for a better project."

The AirTrain, of course, still has defenders. The Regional Plan Association, which long has supported the project, claims the AirTrain offers "benefits for the entire region" and boosted "the need to invest in critical infrastructure like this." Assembly Member Jeffrion Aubry, who authored the original legislation that condemned the Flushing Bay waterfront parkland for the AirTrain, sent reporters a letter insisting that it would remove cars from local streets.

Mayor de Blasio straddled the fence. When asked why the administration simply doesn't save the state $2 billion by creating dedicated busways to LaGuardia along the Q70 and M60-SBS lines, City Hall spokesman Mitch Schwartz declined to comment. Instead, Schwartz proffered some mayoral remarks from last week.

"I think there's some virtues to the project, but my question has always been, is there a better way to give people a more direct ride to the airport that would be even more appealing and get more and more people to use mass transit?" de Blasio told reporters during a news conference. "Let's do that assessment now. It doesn't have to take forever. Let's reassess it and figure out if there's a better way. If there is not, go with the original plan. But it's not, you know — it's no longer an imperial building project. Now it can be looked at objectively."

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