Op-Ed: Current LGA AirTrain Route is the Best, Greenest Transit Option

Alternative proposals are fatally flawed, argues Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton.

A rendering of the proposed LGA AirTrain.  Image: Governor's Office
A rendering of the proposed LGA AirTrain. Image: Governor's Office

Streetsblog recently published two pieces (here and here) that were highly critical of the state’s plan to build an AirTrain from LaGuardia Airport to Willets Point, which is further from Manhattan than the airport, and would connect to an LIRR trunk line that does not connect to the critical Jamaica hub. In the interest of fair play (and erudite clickbait!), we have offered Port Authority Executive Rick Cotton space to make his case that we are wrong. Our publication of this piece does not mean we share the opinion of the Port Authority.

Everyone who cares about reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, air pollution and road congestion near LaGuardia Airport, as well as those who want to enable reliable and predictable access to the airport, should vigorously support the building of the LaGuardia AirTrain. 

The proposed AirTrain LGA is now under review by the Federal Aviation Administration. Community input is a key part of the FAA’s process. Thus, the FAA is reporting publicly its major conclusions and its progress in the multi-year process. 

Rick Cotton
Rick Cotton

The FAA plans to focus its review on the alternative for rail access to the airport that is by far the most sensible, practical, and likely to get people out of their cars and onto mass transit. It is the alternative that both has received the most support from a broad swath of the surrounding community and authorization from the New York State Legislature. It is — simply stated — the best alternative.

That alternative builds an air train to Willets Point on a route that involves no construction in neighborhoods, takes no private property, and largely follows the eight-lane Grand Central Parkway right of way, then uses the edge of a parking lot serving CitiField before entering MTA property. It will be a reliable trip of 30 minutes or less between Midtown and LaGuardia – a 16-minute trip from Penn Station or Grand Central Terminal to Willets Point, and a six-minute trip from Willets Point to the airport. 

Our projections show that in 2025 AirTrain LGA will be used by 6.6 million to 10 million riders. No wonder it has attracted the most outside support and has risen to the top of the FAA’s independent review.

AirTrain LGA makes sense in every way — from improving access to LaGuardia for travelers and the thousands who work there, to reducing congestion on roads in neighborhoods, to its benefits for the environment.

It is indefensible and unacceptable that LaGuardia is the only major airport on the East Coast without rail mass-transit access. Across Queens at JFK, AirTrain JFK has vastly exceeded original projections and has become a key pillar of access for the traveling public and airport employees. Its success further demonstrates LaGuardia’s urgent need for a mass-transit connection.

Vigorous public debate is a good thing. But constantly surfacing unrealistic and fatally flawed non-starter options does not advance the discussion. To the contrary, it confuses and misleads.  

A recent Streetsblog op-ed surfaced two such options:

  • First, the proposal to extend the N/W subway line from Astoria along the Grand Central Parkway to the airport would require shutting down Amtrak’s Hells Gate railroad trestle that crosses over the parkway for up to three years, resulting in unacceptable disruptions to Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor train service. That is a fatally flawed non-starter. 
  • Second, alternative proposals to extend the N/W line through densely populated Astoria neighborhoods, or to construct new rail service to the airport from the Long Island Rail Road station in Woodside, or the subway station at 74th Street in Jackson Heights, would require construction in densely populated neighborhoods.

These proposals are fatally flawed non-starters that would impose an unacceptable burden on affected communities, when there is a much-less-intrusive and far-less-destructive alternative that provides the full benefits of rail mass transit to the airport. 

Remember, when the subway system was first extended to Queens, engineers had the luxury of building train lines through undeveloped communities and wide-open spaces, which is not the case today. We must be creative and resourceful if we are going to build important projects that improve our outdated legacy transportation systems and encourage the use of mass transit to improve travel options and protect the environment. The proposed AirTrain to LaGuardia Airport with the connection at Willets Point will do just that. 

AirTrain LGA will not only provide an enormously important 30-minute connection between Midtown and the airport, it is also an investment in our regional economy and the surrounding communities. It will support thousands of good-paying union construction jobs. It’s an opportunity to invest millions of dollars in improvements to the long-neglected and underused Flushing Bay Promenade and waterfront. It’s an investment in a greener planet. 

In particular, those in favor of a Green New Deal should overwhelmingly support AirTrain LGA.

Rick Cotton is the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.