Op-Ed Round 2: Kabak Rebuts Port Authority Chief’s Pro LaGuardia AirTrain Piece

Why drag people east to Willets Point before sending them back west to LGA? A subway maven takes issue with the Port Authority's (lack of) argument.

Seems unlikely this is going to happen.
Seems unlikely this is going to happen.

On Monday, Streetsblog published an op-ed by Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton that slammed an earlier Streetsblog op-ed by Ben Kabak on the Port Authority’s “Wrong-Way” AirTrain to LaGuardia. Cotton’s op-ed has been roundly criticized, with one Streetsblog commenter noting, “If the point … was to help expose the utter vacuity and speciousness of the ‘argument’ in favor of the CuomoTrain, then [Streetsblog has] succeeded admirably.” Given how many people were underwhelmed by Cotton’s piece, we decided to give Kabak the last word.

Rick Cotton responds to my Streetsblog op-ed with a lot of platitudes and few factual arguments. That’s no way to run — or, in this case, build — a railroad.

Let’s go through it point by point:

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.

Here, Cotton relies heavily on appeals to emotion and tells us what we “should” be doing. These are, of course, laudable goals, but none of these “shoulds” actually defend the AirTrain as a useful transportation option. Next, he writes…

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. …[A]n air train to Willets Point … 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.

Benjamin Kabak
Benjamin Kabak

When Cotton strays into argument on the merits, he doesn’t present much evidence. The AirTrain route that the Port Authority and Gov. Cuomo favor would connect with the 7 train and the Long Island Rail Road’s Port Washington branch at Willets Point — dragging people east before they would need to double back west to the LaGuardia terminals (or head west again toward Manhattan on a return trip). Manhattan, though, accounts for only 50 percent of LaGuardia passengers and just 6 percent of LaGuardia employees, and those not coming from Manhattan who find transit convenient would have to connect to the already crowded Flushing-bound 7 line).

Who precisely does the Willets Point location serve? Not travelers coming from boroughs other than Manhattan or parts of Long Island not on the Port Washington branch (a train that only comes twice an hour). Not most airport workers, who are not interested in going out to Willets Point on the 7 train. Most airport workers aren’t coming that way, and such a trip would only lengthen their commutes. Those are facts from the Port Authority’s own ridership analysis and not simply my opinion. Even more important, the LIRR Port Washington Branch doesn’t connect through the transit hub at Jamaica (as the JFK AirTrain does), which further limits its utility for both airport passengers and employees.

The Port Authority’s plan proposes to work around this failing by building huge parking lots at Willets Point that would hold around 1,000 cars. But how does that jibe with the PA’s stated goal of “reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, air pollution and road congestion near LaGuardia Airport”? Should-should-should! But Cotton continues…

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.

It’s interesting to see Cotton try to compare the LGA plan to the JFK AirTrain. The biggest difference is the most important one: The JFK AirTrain takes most people in the direction they want to go and provides a connection to a major LIRR station (Jamaica). That’s transit value. Cotton continues…

[C]onstantly 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 [extend the N/W subway line from Astoria or extend the N/W line through Astoria]. 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.

Really? The idea that we cannot build out transit because it “would require construction in densely populated neighborhoods” logically would lead to a moratorium on any transit projects in New York City — certainly any as expensive and disruptive as such Cuomo favorites as the Second Avenue Subway ($6 billion) and East Side Access ($11 billion and counting). It would certainly put the kibosh on Cuomo’s $8 billion plan — announced Monday — to expand Manhattan’s Pennsylvania Station by buying up a block between 30th and 31st streets.

Cartoon: Bill Roundy
Streetsblog editorial cartoonist Bill Roundy offered this take on the debate.

Second, while the LGA AirTrain may provide a “benefit of rail mass transit to the airport,” as Cotton suggests, it provides few, if any, other benefits. Subway extensions and improved bus access to LGA would also provide greater transit benefits to the communities through which those options would pass, and would stimulate the economy in those neighborhoods. Buses, in particular, are a neglected dimension of access to both LaGuardia and Kennedy that need bolstering regardless of whether the Willets Point AirTrain gets built.

If you sit down and think through Cotton’s arguments, he’s really creating a defense of an AirTrain that should go west from LaGuardia instead, perhaps to Woodside. As he wrote…

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

Cotton closes his appeal by asking supporters of the “Green New Deal” to get behind the AirTrain route, which falls flat rhetorically; it’s a veiled appeal to (or swipe at) Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an AirTrain critic who represents the district affected by the proposal. That’s a battle I wouldn’t want to fight.

In sum, I don’t find Cotton’s argument persuasive. From the point of view of those of us who care about expanding transit, though, it’s important to get the PA to respond to alternative proposals to its preferred AirTrain route, even if its responses clearly don’t carry water. If the Port Authority shows its hand, then we know what we’re fighting against and why.

I’m not saying build nothing. I’m saying build something good, especially if we’re spending $2 billion. (Or, if we can’t build anything good without spending $6 billion, let’s just make a lane on the Grand Central Parkway a dedicated busway, which at least would take cars off the roads.) But it certainly looks as if we’re going to be stuck with the Cotton-Cuomo AirTrain proposal.

Benjamin Kabak (@2avsagas) is the editor of Second Ave. Sagas, where he covers city transportation. The FAA’s next public meetings on the AirTrain are January 14 and 15 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. in the Grand Ballroom of the New York LaGuardia Airport Marriott, 102-05 Ditmars Boulevard, East Elmhurst.