Op-Ed: The LaGuardia AirTrain Dog-and-Pony Show

An FAA open house showed the governing class's disdain for transit.

Union members and others attended an open house on LGA access on January 14. Photo: Rich Mintz
Union members and others attended an open house on LGA access on January 14. Photo: Rich Mintz

City & State NY is hosting a full day New York in Transit summit on Jan. 30 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. This summit will bring together experts to assess the current state of New York’s transportation systems, break down recent legislative actions, and look towards the future of all things coming and going in New York. Join Keynote Speaker Polly Trottenberg, commissioner of the NYC Department of Transportation, along with agency leaders, elected officials, and advocates. Use the code STREETSBLOG for a 25-percent discount when you RSVP here!

Rich Mintz
Rich Mintz

If the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the Federal Aviation Administration really wanted people to show up to their open house on LaGuardia access — basically a dog-and-pony show touting Gov. Cuomo’s preferred route for the LaGuardia AirTrain — they wouldn’t have scheduled it at the LGA Marriott Hotel next to the Grand Central Parkway, with validated parking, but only infrequent transit to the door.

There are roughly 10,000 less inconvenient venues in New York City.

It took me an hour and a half to get there on Tuesday night by subway and bus from midtown Manhattan, leading me to conclude that the FAA and Port Authority had set up the meeting so that only one kind of people would show up — and it’s not the kind who really cares about efficient, connected transit to the airport. The fact that it isn’t is a clear statement of the priorities of the class who approves transit investment. The project is facing vociferous opposition in the neighborhood, where residents want the city to step in and subject the project to its Uniform Land Use Review Process.

Attending the open house with me were about 60 people, half of whom appeared to be FAA/Port Authority staff and union members. Most staff appeared to be from Ricondo, the “independent aviation consultant” that conducted the FAA’s study examining the proposed AirTrain and 46 alternatives. The “open house,” which will be repeated tonight, consisted of a series of text-heavy posters lining the walls, with flacks on hand to explain it all.

Per the posters, the FAA/Port Authority study eliminated bus lanes  — the simplest, cheapest, fastest solution — from the start, because bus lanes don’t provide a “time-certain” solution! Per the FAA, bus lanes would end at the airport’s entrance, and without dedicated bus lanes inside the airport nobody could say how long it would take to get from the entrance to any terminal, rendering bus lanes null because they would be “time uncertain.”

I asked an FAA staffer for clarification, and she said (I paraphrase), “We can’t provide bus lanes inside the airport, because that’s the Port Authority. So we only considered bus lanes to the airport entrance.“ The whole thing was a caricature of logic.

This poster from the LGA Access open house shows how the FAA and Port Authority think the public absorbs information. Photo: Eve Kessler
This poster from the LGA Access open house shows how the FAA and Port Authority think the public absorbs information. Photo: Eve Kessler

There’s no reason why the Port Authority can’t run enforced bus-priority corridors all the way to and from terminal curbsides. They just… won’t. No explanation. Because buses are for “other people”?

That tilted the study toward Cuomo’s big Backward Excelsior Train — which drags passengers 1.5 miles east to Willets Point. That senseless Airtrain would connect with an overcrowded, narrow-body local 7 subway train and the second-string Port Washington line of the Long Island Rail Road, which does not connect to the transit hub at Jamaica.

On subway options, the study rejected extensions of the N/W subway train at Astoria Boulevard or Ditmars Boulevard on the grounds of local disruptions during construction, including of the Amtrak line that crosses the Hell Gate Bridge.

Basically, all transit options were rejected because, per the study, we can’t close any lanes, can’t disrupt traffic across the Hell Gate Bridge, and can’t make any modifications to underground water or sewer lines. Rail alternatives were all rejected, too. That pretty much rules out everything.

The study also rejected 19 of 20 fixed-guideway (meaning, light rail) alternatives, leaving only the backward route Cuomo has been pushing for years — an AirTrain station at Willets Point. In almost every case, the objection was some version of “existing facilities can’t be disrupted.”

Out of 47 alternatives evaluated, the only two that made it to the final stage are 1) Cuomo’s Magical Mystical Excelsior Backward AirTrain, and 2) do nothing, which federal law requires to be included as an option. No wonder Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents the district which would house the proposed project, wrote the FAA demanding further scrutiny.

So, because our governing class is uninterested in the daily experience of the people who actually live here and use the MTA, we’re going to spend more than $2 billion on an inconvenient, time-consuming rail connection in the wrong direction that feeds to and from an overcrowded 7 train and (via the LIRR) chaotic Pennsylvania Station. Presumably, they’ll charge us $7.75 a person (what the JFK AirTrain costs now) for this short rail trip in and out of the airport.

What happens now? Well, we wait 15 months, and then the FAA announces that the Port Authority is cleared to do what Cuomo wants. And if you think it’s going to look anything near good, well, I have a bridge for sale.

Rich Mintz (@richmintz) runs Mintz Communications, a marketing firm. The FAA had its second public meeting on the AirTrain on Wednesday night in the same airport Marriott.