ANALYSIS: LGA AirTrain is Andrew Cuomo’s $2B Parking Lot

The real motivator behind the Backwards LaGuardia AirTrain is not transit. It's cars.

A parking lot at LaGuardia Airport. Photo: LGA Twitter
A parking lot at LaGuardia Airport. Photo: LGA Twitter

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!

It’s the parking, stupid!

The dirty little not-so-secret of the LaGuardia AirTrain — the much-criticized, $2-billion Port Authority boondoggle to connect the airport to the LIRR’s less useful Port Washington line at Willets Point — is that it’s almost entirely driven by the needs of car drivers, not transit users. That’s problematic when the goal of transit projects should be to lessen car use — not enable it.

The Willets Point station is not designed only, or even first and foremost, to be a mode of public transit to LaGuardia, but rather to help solve a quandary that is a well-known obsession of the AirTrain’s chief sponsor, Gov. Cuomo. Even with its $8-billion overhaul, LaGuardia has only two, short runways; it needs new runways in order to accommodate more traffic.

Enter the AirTrain.

If the AirTrain is built at Willets Point, much of the existing airport employee parking at LaGuardia will move there as part of a plan “to free up space at LaGuardia for new runways,” said Steve Culberson, a member of the LGA Environmental Impact Statement Project Team. Culberson, who works for Ricondo, an aviation-consulting firm, explained aspects of the AirTrain at the Federal Aviation Administration’s open house on LaGuardia Access on Jan. 14.

Read the fine print: This poster from the LGA Access open house points out the real reason for the Willets Point location of the AirTrain station — to provide parking. Photo: Eve Kessler
Read the fine print: This poster from the LGA Access open house points out the real reason for the Willets Point location of the AirTrain station — to provide parking. Photo: Eve Kessler

Those employees’ cars cannot simply be shifted elsewhere in the airport’s six parking lots because those spaces are “for the public” — meaning, passengers, Culberson said. So some employee parking must move from LaGuardia, which is why 1,000 spaces are planned for employees at the as-yet-unbuilt AirTrain parking lots.

LGA has about 12,000 employees, and the Port Authority estimated that they made 13,398 daily trips to the airport in 2017 — around 60 percent by car. The workers parked a bit more than half of those vehicles at the airport during multiple shifts. The AirTrain would enable the proportion of employees parking at LGA to drop to about 30 percent, according to the Port Authority’s 2018 LGA Ground Access Mode Choice Model and AirTrain Ridership Forecast.

So another way to think about the Willets Point AirTrain station is that it will function as a giant, off-site parking lot for LaGuardia attached to a people-mover.

And, for parking, only Willets Point will do, solving the central mystery of the “wrong way” AirTrain route: Why not connect the airport to a more useful Long Island Rail Road line at Woodside or Jamaica or extend the N train to the airport from its current Astoria terminus just two-and-a-half miles away?

The Willets Point station “doesn’t make any sense” as a transit proposition, as transit expert Benjamin Kabak wrote in Streetsblog.

Kabak and others — including the editorial boards of the New York Post and the Daily News, which came out against the AirTrain last week — have wondered why the Port Authority would want to give passengers such third-string transit connections as the LIRR’s twice-an-hour Port Washington branch, which does not connect to the transit hub at Jamaica.

They also ask of the AirTrain’s proposed subway connection, the local 7 train, why would airport overseers want to put travelers on an overcrowded, narrow-bodied train that would be hard-pressed contain their luggage?

A number of options — such as an AirTrain station at Woodside — would seem to provide a better, more user-friendly connections for travelers, especially when the majority of public commenters, and the Congress member representing the area, have come out against the Willets Point AirTrain route. So why did the FAA, which is conducting the environmental review for the Port, rule out all those options?

But what if ferrying passengers to the airport was not your main concern — but parking cars offsite of LaGuardia was?

The parking rationale for the Willets Point AirTrain location was always hiding in plain sight. The FAA Screening Process Overview states that, in order to be viable, any alternative to the AirTrain must “provide adequate replacement airport employee parking to enable efficient use of on-airport space.”  The overview defines “adequate” as 175,000 square feet of off-airport parking within a quarter-mile walking distance of the alternative’s entrances.

That’s quite a lot of parking. From that point of view — as a backlot for the airport — the AirTrain’s location at Willets Point makes perfect sense! You’re not going to build LaGuardia’s remote lot farther away at Woodside because there’s little room for parking there. And you’re not going to choose other options, such as busways for the M60 and Q70 or a ferry, because you don’t gain parking that way either.

To Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton, those options are “unrealistic and fatally flawed non-starters,” as he wrote in a recent Streetsblog op-ed — without mentioning parking.

The Port Authority estimates there will be about 18,000 daily LGA AirTrain trips in 2025 and 23,000 daily trips by 2045. Fewer than a fifth — 17 percent — of airport passengers will use the service. And the AirTrain will remove only 4,000 cars daily from the roads.

Is that enough? Some experts don’t think so. As Donald Shoup demonstrated in his landmark book, “The High Cost of Free Parking,” the presence of copious parking spaces in American cities encourages and subsidizes driving.

“The garage is a dead giveaway that the Backwards AirTrain is a terrible transit project,” said the TransitCenter’s spokesman Ben Fried. “The Port Authority refused to seriously consider options that easily connect to the rest of the transit network, and this is the result — an awkward kludge that might generate more car trips than it averts. Los Angeles has figured out bus priority at LAX. Why can’t New York?”

So, think of the AirTrain as a $2-billion parking lot with a conveyor belt for drivers. As transit, not so much.

As the FAA moves forward with drafting the AirTrain’s Environmental Impact Statement, and the City Council hopes to hold hearings early next month on whether the project should undergo the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Process, New Yorkers at least ought to understand what the Port Authority really is planning to build in their backyards.

Editor’s note: After initial publication of this story, the FAA tweeted that it has several inaccuracies:

The statement questions Streetsblog’s reporting about any new runway work. Streetsblog should have been clearer: Our reporting does not indicate that there will be new runways, but that there will be work on existing runways. Second, the member of the FAA’s project team did, indeed, provide the information that the FAA says he did not. He did. We stand by our analysis.