AOC to FAA: Not Good Enough on LaGuardia AirTrain

The insurgent Congress member isn’t buying the federal agency’s rationale for discarding alternatives to an unloved project.

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.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez isn’t buying the Federal Aviation Administration’s rationale for discarding alternatives to the LaGuardia AirTrain.

In January, the insurgent member of Congress from the Bronx and Queens slammed the FAA for choosing the Port Authority’s current plan over 46 alternatives “despite overwhelming public comments opposed to PANYNJ’s preferred route,” she wrote. The FAA’s conduct, she said, “essentially den[ied] a voice to the dozens of community members.”

This week, the FAA offered the same explanation it has given before regarding the rejected AirTrain alternatives — and AOC said, essentially, “Not good enough.”

“It is clear from the FAA’s response that several alternatives were ruled out for reasons inconsistent with the stated screening criteria,” she said in a statement issued Tuesday. “[Queens residents] are owed a fair and transparent evaluation of transportation alternatives to LaGuardia Airport.”

The proposed elevated AirTrain would run 1.5 miles from LaGuardia in East Elmhurst alongside the Grand Central Parkway and then along the Flushing Bay promenade to Willets Point, where it would connect to the 7 subway line and the Long Island Rail Road’s Port Washington branch, a spur that does not connect to the Jamaica hub. The FAA is conducting the environmental review on behalf on the PANYNJ project.

The Willets Point route has come under heavy fire from transit analysts because it would draw travelers further east from LaGuardia before they would double back toward the airport (or, during the reverse trip, Manhattan). Some experts believe it 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.

Other objections center on insufficiency of the 7 and the Port Washington trains, as well as questions about the AirTrain’s own service assumptions and construction disruptions. Further, the AirTrain station at Willets Point seems designed more as a remote parking lot for the airport than as a full-fledged addition to the transit network. The public also registered its disapproval during a comment period last spring.

In January, AOC demanded that the FAA consider:

  • Ferry Service, asking why it 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.” The FAA responded that  that the ferry was disqualified not because of the “reliability of the ferry service itself,” but because ferry passengers would need to use buses to the airport that could get caught in traffic.
  • Dedicated Bus Lanes to Q70 Bus Route. “With dedicated bus lanes, travel time to and from the airport would significantly decrease for travelers utilizing the Woodside and Jackson Heights transportation hubs,” she wrote. The FAA responded that putting in dedicated bus lanes would increase “roadway congestion elsewhere”by eliminating a general-purpose lane — which misunderstands how eliminating traffic lanes actually decreases demand and causes congestion to fall. This alternative also failed in the FAA’s view because (horror of horrors!) it “would result in removing parking areas along Roosevelt Avenue and Broadway.”
  • 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.” The FAA responded that this alternative would require the temporary relocation of the the Astoria Boulevard Station on the N and W line and closure and modification of Hellsgate Bridge, over which runs Amtrak’s northeast service.
  • Fixed guideway to Woodside LIRR/Woodside Subway and Roosevelt Avenue-Jackson Heights Station elevated above Roosevelt, Broadway, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, and the Grand Central Parkway: “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.” The FAA said that the alternative would require realignment of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway/Grand Central Parkway interchange and “extensive bridge and roadway reconstruction” because the “interchange does not provide sufficient space for locating support columns” for an elevated train..

Ocasio-Cortez also complained that the FAA was ignoring the mostly negative public comments from Queens residents last year.

“We expect the FAA’s final analysis in the summer of 2020 to be informed by the feedback solicited from the surrounding community,” she added in her statement. “Any final recommendation must serve the best interests of frontline communities as much as the wider tri-state ridership.”

The Port Authority declined to comment.