By Emma Saltzberg
The AirTrain to LaGuardia is a highly contentious proposal to build a train connecting the subway to the airport. Local community members and their elected officials oppose the plan, while economic advocates are championing it. This memo reviews the considerations of stakeholders on both sides and recommends a path forward.
The proposed AirTrain is an elevated train designed to carry travelers easily from Manhattan (or any subway or Long Island Rail Road) to LaGuardia Airport (LGA). Currently, most travelers take taxis or drive to LGA, and it is the only major airport on the East Coast without mass transit rail access (McGeehan, 2020; Acevedo, 2020a). Although there is no direct New York City subway access to LGA, access via city bus is available. The project is controlled by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and is estimated to cost more than $2 billion (McGeehan, 2021). The proposed route would connect to the NYC subway (MTA) and Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) systems at Willets Point, Queens, near Citi Field, following along the Grand Central Parkway (see maps).
In 2018, New York state representatives passed legislation to begin the required environmental review process to determine the final route (Warerkar, 2018). In November 2020, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released an analysis of proposed alternatives to AirTrain LGA and concluded that the only feasible options were to build the AirTrain or leave the existing options (McGeehan, 2020). The FAA approved the AirTrain plan in July 2021, prompting community organizations to sue in September (McGeehan, 2021).
There are strong voices in support of and against the AirTrain project at both a community and governmental level. Local community advocates in support formed the organization A Better Way to LGA, a coalition of varied organizations, that stated that the AirTrain will not force New Yorkers out of homes or businesses, and will not be paid for by tax dollars (Acevedo, 2020a). According to A Better Way to LGA, the analogous AirTrain to John F. Kennedy Airport generated over $1 billion in investment in the local community over the last two decades (A Better Way to LGA, 2020b). They estimate that nearly 10 million people would use the AirTrain to LGA a (A Better Way to LGA, 2020b). They argue that the AirTrain would incentivize tourism and business travel to New York by making the airport more accessible (A Better Way to LGA, 2020b). In 2021, NYC had 32.9 million visitors, less than half of the 2019 figure (Barron, 2022). Incentives for tourism and other travel to NYC are crucially needed to help rebuild the city.
Queens neighborhood residents have stated that they are already underserved by state funding, and that an elevated train through their backyards should not be a priority for spending their tax dollars (Hallum, 2020). Queens Community Board 3 has come out against the project (Acevedo, 2020b), and civic groups such as Sensible Way to LGA have formed to protest the plan (Acevedo, 2020a). Some Queens residents are concerned that AirTrain LGA will impede park space and reduce property values nearby (Guse, 2020). An environmental advocacy group called Guardians of Flushing Bay noted that the plan would run through Flushing Promenade, decreasing public park space and subsequently becoming polluted (Donlevy, 2021). A representative of the Ditmars Boulevard Bock Association shared that the health of local residents has not been taken into consideration and that they would experience noise, vibration, light emission, and pollution (Kaye, 2021).
Furthermore, transit advocates suggest that using the AirTrain may take travelers longer than taking the existing bus option, because the Willets Point station is farther east than the airport (Fitzsimmons, 2018; McGeehan, 2020). Additionally, more transfers (LIRR) or local stops (subway) are required, which may take longer than using express bus service (Fitzsimmons, 2018). Finally, many people have criticized the exorbitant $2 billion cost of the project (McGeehan, 2020; Acevedo, 2020a), even before the municipal and state budget shortfalls resulting from impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.
Unsurprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench in the plans for AirTrain LGA. The economic impact of the pandemic has had a tremendous negative effect on not only the Port Authority, but also airline travel overall (Hallum, 2020). In March through July 2020, the Port Authority suffered $800 million in lost revenue, their worst quarter on record (Hallum, 2020). Fortunately, President Biden’s infrastructure bill from November 2021 has designated $39 billion for public transit (Pramuk, 2021).
Former Governor Andrew Cuomo was the plan’s foremost proponent; yet, in August 2021, he was forced to resign and was not able to complete the AirTrain project during his tenure. As of October 2021, current Governor Kathy Hochul put the LGA AirTrain plan on hold and asked the Port Authority to review alternatives (McGeehan, 2021). Their report was published in March 2022, and they generated fourteen alternative options to the AirTrain (Nessen, 2022). The Port Authority is “seeking community input before moving forward” on alternatives that include new bus routes, ferries, and other elevated rails (Nessen, 2022). Some of these options would be similarly intrusive for local residents. The Port Authority is interviewing key stakeholders and holding public meetings on the alternatives (Nessen, 2022).
Given the opposition of the community on the ground, as well as the financial impacts of the pandemic, I recommend not moving forward on the AirTrain to LGA project. Currently, the plan does not have the fierce support or institutional momentum it once did. I believe that the state should genuinely consider the proposed alternatives and prioritize other aspects of the city’s recovery before the AirTrain LGA project. I recommend investing the $2 billion designated for AirTrain LGA, as well as funds from President Biden’s infrastructure bill, into the MTA—still in fiscal crisis due to COVID-19. The bus route alternatives to the AirTrain are relatively inexpensive and feasible (Nessen, 2022). Extensions of the MTA Q70 or M60 bus lines could be implemented right away (see maps; Nessen, 2022). This way, we can invest in improving reliability, frequency, and efficiency of existing services rather than creating a new project which is opposed by the community.
Emma B. Saltzberg is an MPA student at NYU Wagner, specializing in Public Policy Analysis. Emma aims to work in public policy on wealth inequality and racial and economic justice. She holds a BS in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology from Tulane University.
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