Council Has Put Off Hearing on ‘Backwards’ LaGuardia AirTrain: Sources

Speaker quashed effort to rein in runaway project because of a local lawmaker's objections, activists claim.

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

The City Council has apparently decided not flex its limited muscle to hold a hearing on the controversial LaGuardia AirTrain — and the about-face may be tied up in a minor political rivalry or in the larger failure of every step of government to derail the $2-billion, “wrong way” project.

Council Member Fernando Cabrera, who is chairman of the Government Operations Committee, said a Council hearing would take place on Jan. 29, but later told Streetsblog that the hearing would not happen because officials from the Port Authority allegedly could not attend.

“There is a lack of transparency here. Why can’t the Port Authority answer questions from community residents?” said Cabrera, who represents a West Bronx district. “If taxpayers are going to pay $2 billion for an AirTrain … the public deserves an explanation rather than the Port Authority’s excuses for being unable to attend a hearing.”

Port Authority officials deny they were ever invited — and, if that’s true, it may be because Council Speaker Corey Johnson did not allow the hearing to move forward at the behest of Council Member Francisco Moya, whose Queens district includes the airport. Moya is a strong supporter of the AirTrain on the grounds that it will help airport workers (our analysis is here).

Council Speaker Corey Johnson Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
Council Speaker Corey Johnson. File photo

“The speaker apparently caved in to Council Member Moya, who doesn’t want this hearing,” claimed Frank Taylor, president of the Ditmars Boulevard Block Association, which opposes the AirTrain because its elevated railway between the airport and the Willets Point subway station may damage area home values. “This shows no leadership, no vision, no clarity.”

Johnson’s office declined to comment on the scuttled hearing, but a spokesman disputed that an agreement with Moya led the speaker to quash an oversight hearing, saying that Taylor “doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

The spokesman also derided Taylor’s comments as a “political hit” on behalf of another local pol, convicted domestic abuser Hiram Monserrate, a rival of Moya, who is hoping to mount yet another political comeback.

“That’s ridiculous,” Taylor responded. “The only thing I’m trying to do is protect our homes.”

Moya’s office said — but not in a particularly convincing manner — that the council member hadn’t asked Johnson to disallow the AirTrain hearing.

What Council Member Moya has said repeatedly about the AirTrain is that anyone who opposes the plan or has concerns should absolutely make them known with the Port Authority and the state lawmakers who authorized the project in the first place,” said Moya’s spokesman, Ryan Sit.

Whatever the truth, the refusal to hold a hearing is a blow to the Queens-based opposition to the project and good government groups that hoped a Council hearing could have led to forcing the Port Authority to submit the AirTrain project to the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Process. (Currently, the only environmental review of the project is being conducted by the Federal Aviation Administration — which has ignored many local and citywide concerns, including rejecting 47 alternatives and strategies to get flyers to the airport).

The so-called Backwards AirTrain, a pet project of Gov. Cuomo, would run 1.5 miles from LaGuardia to Willets Point on raised pylons alongside the Grand Central Parkway and Flushing Bay promenade. It would connect to the 7 train and the LIRR’s Port Washington branch — bringing travelers further east before they would double back to Manhattan or other points west of the airport.

Boosters, such as Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton, contend that the AirTrain’s “backwards” route is the best, greenest option for creating a railroad connection to the airport, and that proposed alternatives are non-starters. The project is supported by local elected officials such as Moya and the construction unions and commercial groups that stand to benefit from it.

But many transit experts think that the route makes little transit sense, especially given its cost, which has ballooned four-fold from $500 million five years ago. They say that the 7 line, which is served by narrow-body, overcrowded trains, would be hard pressed to accommodate passengers with luggage, while the infrequent LIRR Port Washington trains do not provide service through the transit hub at Jamaica. They propose that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority beef up bus service or build out other transit options instead.

A spokeswoman for the Port Authority, Lindsay Kryzak, sidestepped the controversy. “There are no taxpayer dollars going to the proposed AirTrain LGA, which will benefit millions of travelers and take thousands of cars off streets in local communities.”

The controversy comes as two more local lawmakers, State Sen. Jessica Ramos and Council member Costa Constantinides, announced that they won’t support the AirTrain because it is a waste of money that adds nothing to local transit.

Their comments came weeks after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose district includes the airport, wrote to the FAA last month asking for a stay on the AirTrain project because, she said, officials had ruled out viable alternatives without adequate explanation and had disregarded the overwhelmingly negative reaction from the community and would-be train users. Her office told that it had not received a response from the FAA.