AOC to FAA: No on LGA AirTrain

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote to the FAA blasting the lack of transparency around project, which would reside in her district.

Count AOC skeptical about the FAA's explanations for why it ruled out alternatives to the Port Authority's preferred AirTrain route.
Count AOC skeptical about the FAA's explanations for why it ruled out alternatives to the Port Authority's preferred AirTrain route.

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The Port Authority’s AirTrain plan for LaGuardia must be stopped because officials ruled out viable alternatives without adequate explanation and has disregarded the overwhelmingly negative reaction from the community and would-be train users, says firebrand Queens Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, finally joining community groups’ last-ditch effort to sink the $2-billion boondoggle.

The proposed route of the LGA AirTrain runs along the Grand Central Parkway and Flushing Bay to Willets Point. Image: Governor's Office
The proposed route of the LGA AirTrain runs along the Grand Central Parkway and Flushing Bay to Willets Point. Image: Governor’s Office

The insurgent member of Congress from the Bronx and Queens slammed the Federal Aviation Administration for choosing the current plan despite a raft of alternatives and “despite overwhelming public comments opposed to PANYNJ’s preferred route,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Jan. 10 to the agency. 

The FAA’s conduct, she said, “essentially den[ied] a voice to the dozens of community members.”

“This decision will have a lasting impact on thousands of people in our community,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a subsequent statement. “The community must receive answers to their fundamental questions and it’s imperative that we understand why further investment and improvement of other transit options have been ruled out.”

The FAA is conducting the environmental review on behalf on the PANYNJ project. Ocasio-Cortez believes that review to be faulty because of the alternatives it discarded. As such, she is demanding that the agency consider:

  • Ferry Service. AOC asked why this option was disqualified, given that the New York City’s Department of Transportation website calls the Staten Island Ferry “the most reliable form of mass transit, with a consistent annual on-time performance record of over 92 percent during the last several years.”
  • Dedicated Bus Lanes to Q70 Bus Route. AOC wrote, “With dedicated bus lanes, travel time to and from the airport would significantly decrease for travelers utilizing the Woodside and Jackson Heights transportation hubs.”
  • Subway extension from Astoria Subway elevated above Astoria Boulevard. AOC asked that the FAA “clarify how existing infrastructure or transportation facilities would be impacted with this option” and “explain how the service would be disrupted during peak time, particularly as it compares to other subway extension/fixed guideway alternatives.
  • Fixed Guideway to Woodside LIRR/Woodside Subway and Roosevelt Avenue-Jackson Heights Station elevated above Roosevelt, Broadway, BQE, and GCP. She argued that “given the connectivity of these stations to the Long Island Rail Road, numerous buses and multiple train lines, this seems like a natural route for a fixed guideway to connect to in order to reduce trips and incentivize public transport to LaGuardia Airport.”
Alexandria Ocasio Cortes
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

AOC’s letter represents a boost to the Queens-based opposition to the project, a coalition of residents, businesses and environmentalists in East Elmhurst, Corona, Jackson Heights and Flushing. 

The opposition rallied at City Hall Monday morning with City Council members Fernando Cabrera and Ydanis Rodriguez to demand that the project be subject to the oversight of the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Process. Rodriguez, who heads the council’s Transportation Committee, announced that it would convene a hearing on the matter Jan. 29. 

The missive also comes directly in advance of two public meetings on the project to be held by the FAA in East Elmhurst. Opponents have criticized those meetings for a lack of any question-and-answer sessions — part of what they say is a bid by the Port Authority and FAA to push through the project quickly while ignoring vociferous opposition.

 A public-comment period last June garnered mostly negative views, as AOC noted in her letter: “Out of 414 comments reported in the study, 255 were noted in opposition to that route,” she wrote. “Furthermore, I find it concerning that 77 submitted form letters were counted as a single public comment, essentially denying a voice to the dozens of community members who took time out of their days to express their positions on this important issue.”

Cartoon: Bill Roundy
Cartoon: Bill Roundy

 The AirTrain — which is moving ahead after the FAA’s environmental review ruled out 47 alternatives in November — would run 1.5 miles from LaGuardia in East Elmhurst on raised pylons alongside the Grand Central Parkway and then along the Flushing Bay promenade before turning inland, where it would connect to the 7 train and the Long Island Rail Road’s little-used Port Washington branch at Willets Point.

Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton contended in a Streetsblog op-ed that his agency’s proposed AirTrain route is the best, greenest option for creating a railroad connection to the airport, and that the other alternatives had flaws that rendered them non-starters. He pointed to support for the project from local electeds, unions and commerical groups. 

But many transit experts think that the route, which would draw travelers further east from LaGuardia before they would double back toward the airport (or, during the reverse trip, Manhattan), won’t save travelers time and makes little sense, especially given its cost, which is now more than $2 billion, up from $500 million just four years ago. Moreover, the 7 line is served by narrow-body, overcrowded trains that would be hard pressed to accommodate passengers with luggage. Critics note that the LIRR Port Washington trains are little used and run only twice an hour — and, most important, do not provide service through the transit hub at Jamaica.

Given these considerations, they argue, the AirTrain represents a poor use of public money when other transit options could accomplish more while serving greater numbers. The Willets Point AirTrain would accommodate about 18,000 daily trips in 2025 and 23,000 daily trips by 2045, or 17 to 18 percent of passengers to the airport, by Port Authority estimates.

Alternatives include investing in the current bus lines to the airport, the Select Bus Service M60 from Harlem and the Q70 from Woodside — perhaps by providing them with dedicated busways. Other alternatives included extending the N/W line three miles to the airport, but those encountered local opposition and so gained no political traction.

Port Authority spokeswoman Alana Calmi said that, far from being ignored, “community input has already influenced the recommended AirTrain route to the airport, [by] moving it further to the north running along the northern edge of the eight-lane Grand Central Parkway.” She praised the route because it “takes no private property, does not go through any residential communities, and connects to the LIRR and subway system in ways that will enable a smooth transfer and reliable transit into Manhattan and elsewhere” and noted that PANYNJ “receives no taxpayer dollars from either state and there are no taxpayer dollars allocated to the AirTrain LGA.”

Ditmars Boulevard Neighborhood Association president Frank Taylor, a member of the local coalition against the AirTrain, praised the efforts of AOC and the Council members “to take back city streets and roads and stand up” to the Port Authority and its patron, Governor Cuomo.

The FAA said in a statement that its public-information sessions will be conducted “in an open house format” with representatives available to answer questions, but that it “cannot accept verbal testimony or formal comments at the information sessions.” Discussion is  limited to “the FAA’s alternatives screening criteria and analysis.”

Mayor de Blasio did not have any immediate comment on AOC’s letter or the demand for the project to go through the city’s uniform land-use review procedure or ULURP. 

After initial publication of the story, we updated it to reflect comments by the Port Authority, the FAA and Frank Taylor.

The FAA’s next public meetings on the AirTrain are Jan. 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.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s letter to the FAA is linked here and is below: