Has Train Service to LaGuardia Airport in New York Been Derailed Yet Again?
The next stop is...?!?
Other than via taxi cabs and buses which are operated by the city of New York, a viable link between the subway system and Fiorello H. LaGuardia Airport never existed — and that was likely to change, as a decision which was issued on Wednesday, July 21, 2021 by the Federal Aviation Administration of the United States pertaining to the environmental review for the proposed construction of an AirTrain allowed the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to proceed with its proposal to construct a rail system to provide a reliable transit option for air travelers and employees at the airport…
Has Train Service to LaGuardia Airport in New York Been Derailed Yet Again?
…but a group of advocates and residents of the borough of Queens — specifically, Riverkeeper, Incorporated; Guardians of Flushing Bay, Incorporated; and Ditmars Boulevard Block Association, Incorporated — filed a lawsuit with the Second Circuit Court of Appeals of the United States on Monday, September 20, 2021 against the federal government of the United States and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey petitioning over the approval of the controversial project, which is estimated to cost as much as $2.1 billion.
The aforementioned lawsuit alleges that an order which was issued by the Federal Aviation Administration of the United States back in July of 2021 illegally dismissed alternatives to the AirTrain, and wrongly allows the federal agency to build over and develop park land without properly considering at least 47 other alternative options.
Moreover, Kathy Hochul — who is the current governor of the state of New York — announced at a press conference on Monday, October 4, 2021, that she directed the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to examine alternatives which will transport more people to and from the airport while simultaneously persuading them to use mass transportation instead of private vehicles in order to reduce traffic: “We must ensure that our transportation projects are bold, visionary, and serve the needs of New Yorkers. 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.”
Details of the Controversial AirTrain Project
Had that specific proposal been allowed to progress to its completion, the AirTrain would operate between the airport and the Mets-Willets Point station which serves the 7 Flushing subway line — as well as the Mets-Willets Point station which serves the Port Washington Branch of the Long Island Rail Road. Currently, five bus routes serve the airport: M60, Q70, Q72, Q47, and Q48 — of which the latter serves the Mets-Willets Point station of the 7 Flushing subway line — according to this official bus map of Queens from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. To a lesser extent, the Q23 and Q33 bus lines also serve the airport; but they are not as convenient, as each terminus is located near the airport but does not actually go to the airport itself.
Also proposed in the controversial AirTrain project are passenger walkways connecting to the LGA Central Hall, a parking garage connector, and public transportation and ground transportation facilities. Construction of the project was supposed to begin as early as next year.
“The FAA held two virtual public workshops and three virtual public hearings in September 2020 on the draft environmental review. The meetings had a combined viewership of over 18,000 people, and the public provided over 4,200 comments. Participants were able to request interpreters for a variety of languages for all these meetings. The Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) was released on March 19, 2021 and contained responses to the comments received”, according to this official statement from the Federal Aviation Administration. “Eighteen different federal, state and local agencies have provided input throughout the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process based on their expertise and authorities.”
Approximately 44 percent of the travelers who head to the airport in 2026 will either use taxi cabs or “e-hail” cars, according to the Final Environmental Impact Statement, which was prepared in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which requires the Federal Aviation Administration “to analyze alternatives and identify and disclose the potential environmental impacts of the proposed project. During the NEPA process, the FAA looked at 47 alternatives, more than half of which were identified by the public during the scoping process. These options were evaluated to see if they met the purpose and need of the proposed action and if they would be reasonable to construct and operate.”
The controversial project is supported by transit advocates who have been attempting to convince officials for decades to extend the subway to the terminals of the airport, as well as by Andrew Cuomo — who is the former governor of the state of New York — who said in this official statement that “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. 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.”
The Federal Aviation Administration prepared the environmental review because the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey had plans to request funding for the AirTrain through the Passenger Facility Charge program, which allows for the collection of fees of up to $4.50 per flight segment to be added to the airline tickets of every eligible passenger. The proceeds of the program can be used on certain qualifying airport projects — subject to approval of the Federal Aviation Administration.
This means that your flights to and from Fiorello H. LaGuardia airport in New York could be at least nine dollars more expensive to help pay for the proposed AirTrain — whether or not you use it — in addition to the minimum of $15.50 you will pay round trip if you do use it.
, “LaGuardia Airport is the only major airport on the East Coast without a rail mass transit link, and it is way past time for that embarrassment to end.” That may be true…
…but the project has also been staunchly and consistently opposed by community groups — including the ones who filed the aforementioned lawsuit — in the northern part of the borough of Queens.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — who currently represents and serves the 14th District of New York as a member of the House of Representatives of the United States — believes that no federal relief funding related to the current 2019 Novel Coronavirus pandemic should be granted to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for the purpose of constructing the AirTrain until such time as a new route is identified, or the concerns of the community are sufficiently alleviated.
“Documents obtained by Riverkeeper showed that the FAA had initially critiqued Port Authority when it embellished the purported benefit of the AirTrain; cherry-picked its transit project selection criteria; unevenly applied those selection criteria among the alternatives; and excluded viable and desired ferry service from meaningful consideration”, according to this article from Riverkeeper, which is a not-for-profit tax-exempt membership conservation organization whose mission is to protect and restore the Hudson River from source to sea and safeguard drinking water supplies through advocacy rooted in community partnerships, science, and law. “Documents obtained by Riverkeeper through a Freedom of Information lawsuit have caused the Federal Aviation Administration to postpone its decision on the proposed LaGuardia Airport AirTrain. The documents reveal communications between the FAA and the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, which proposes to develop the $2.05 billion rail project through waterfront parkland in East Elmhurst, Queens, an environmental justice community. In the communications, FAA raises concerns about the impartiality of the transit alternatives review, a key piece of the approval process.”
Why Not Just Extend an Existing Subway Line?
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez reportedly accused the Federal Aviation Administration in 2020 of not taking a close enough look at such alternatives as extending the N subway line from the Astoria neighborhood. “The community surrounding LaGuardia was among the hardest hit by COVID-19, and many of its residents are now facing eviction or other serious economic consequences of the pandemic. These families have been crying out for relief for months. While state and local funding is desperately needed in the next COVID-19 relief package, it would be the ultimate insult to finally send aid to this community in the form of a project that they firmly oppose and that could further jeopardize their health and safety”, according to this official press release from the Democratic congresswoman which is dated Wednesday, July 29, 2020. “The proposed Willis Point route is likely to lead to overcrowding on the 7 train, a concern the community has raised for years but which has gained additional urgency in a post-COVID-19 era. There are also valid ecological concerns about the construction through park and marshland that this route would require. Most importantly, however, is the general disregard for community input. Over half of the public comments submitted to this project opposed the AirTrain and yet this majority was utterly disregarded.”
Unfortunately, the approval by the Federal Aviation Administration to simply extend an existing subway line instead of creating the proposed AirTrain will no longer be considered as an option, as the final step — which is referred as the Record of Decision, which was released on Tuesday, July 20, 2021 — noted that any variation of an extension of the existing subway line from the Astoria Boulevard station would not be feasible because it would adversely impact automobile traffic in the area; require relocation of utilities; and require excavation around existing trestles which lead to the Hell Gate Bridge, which carries Amtrak trains.
Instead — in what may be perceived to be a rather inefficient solution — passengers of the proposed AirTrain who are traveling from Manhattan to the airport will be traveling south and east of the airport either on the 7 Flushing subway line or the Port Washington Branch of the Long Island Rail Road before they arrive at the Mets-Willets Point station. From that point, the AirTrain will carry the passengers “backwards” to the northwest — above the Flushing Bay Promenade — to get to their terminals at the airport. The AirTrain will be operated by computers.
Moreover, the solution will be more expensive for passengers: instead of simply paying the subway fare of $2.75 — or whatever the fare will be in 2026, which is the earliest time when construction of the AirTrain is forecast to be completed — passengers will also have to pay a special fare for the AirTrain as well, as is the case at both John F. Kennedy International Airport and Newark International Airport, where passengers currently pay $7.75 each way to use the AirTrain. The fare for the AirTrain was originally five dollars each way until it was increased to $7.75 each way on Friday, November 1, 2019.
Statistics in Support of a New Transportation Option
In addition — in reference specifically to the airport:
Passengers and employees depend on roadway-based vehicles for their trips to and from the airport, as almost 90 percent of passengers arrive to the airport by private vehicle.
50 percent passengers are coming from or going to Manhattan; with greater than 25 percent of all passengers coming from or going to midtown Manhattan.
A mere six percent of passengers use public transportation in the form of one of the aforementioned five bus routes — none of which are direct from midtown Manhattan.
Congestion in the greater New York City metropolitan area has increased; and airport travelers have had to adjust travel patterns accordingly by allotting greater time for their trip.
With only roadway connections to the airport, access is dependent upon unreliable traffic conditions.
Vehicular travel times between midtown Manhattan and and the airport vary greatly by day, with taxi travel time data showing that travel times generally ranged between 35 minutes and 80 minutes over a period of four years.
Travel time has increased from year to year; and this trend is expected to continue.
As one example of recent trends, the number of extreme travel days — when at least one trip took a minimum of 70 minutes — from the airport to Times Square increased from 21 in 2014 to 114 in 2017, which more than quintupled.
Final Boarding Call
“Although a more direct link between the airport and the subway system has arguably been needed for years, I am not sure that this solution is the best for passengers — even though I have taken the bus to and from the airport multiple times over the years to get to the subway, as I am originally from New York” is what I wrote in this article here at The Gate on Thursday, July 22, 2021. “But then again, so many issues and components to be considered — such as environment, cost, traffic, and convenience — have rendered a solution in general to be rather complex.”
One interesting solution which I have found by accident is to stay as a guest at a hotel property near the airport and use its free shuttle from the airport. I was then able to walk several blocks to the subway station which serves passengers on the N and W Broadway lines the next day to travel to Manhattan.
A successful solution needs to address the cost and quality of transportation service between LaGuardia Airport and the rapid transit subway system of New York while simultaneously seriously considering both the environment and the quality of life for residents in those neighborhoods in the northern part of the borough of Queens.