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In theory, a rail connection to LaGuardia Airport is a no-brainer: 86 percent of passengers take cars to the airport, constantly battling construction and rush hour-related delays to have the opportunity to navigate LaGuardia’s battered and aging concourses (lucky for them, their flight is most likely delayed anyway). Still, it would be nice to have a way to get to the airport that doesn’t rest on the whims of the ever-mercurial Grand Central Parkway. Enter Governor Andrew Cuomo, a man committed to making New York “New York” again, a place where we can build “something big and [say], ‘Geez, that’s us, boy. That’s New York at its best.’”
As part of Cuomo’s plan to build a completely new LaGuardia airport that he unveiled last year, he briefly mentioned an AirTrain from Willets Point, of a similar build as the JFK AirTrain. Transit advocates laughed at the idea. Why would he build its terminal at Willets Point, which is even further from the city than the airport itself? For a while, Cuomo barely mentioned the AirTrain. Everyone thought it was dead. Then, the idea came back to life, and worse, it looks like it’s actually happening. Yesterday, the governor’s office issued an RFP for the design and engineering of the Willets Point to LaGuardia AirTrain. Brace yourself for a boondoggle.
To get a sense of what an unmitigated disaster Cuomo’s plan will be, you have to look at the history of a mythical rail connection to LaGuardia. Since at least the 1980’s, as New York City began its financial recovery, there’s been a strong push for a one-seat ride, preferably on the New York City subway itself. The N is the closest train to LaGuardia and the city, and it terminates at Ditmars Boulevard, just 2.5 miles away from the airport. In 1998, the MTA, Port Authority, and city decided to pool their money and connect the city’s two airports to the trains. LaGuardia would get an N train extension, and JFK, a monorail, dubbed an “AirTrain,” that would go 4.5 miles along the Van Wyck expressway to the international airport. The JFK AirTrain got built. The N Train extension did not.
The N train extension was summarily executed by local opposition, mainly due to the the fact that NIMBY’s didn’t want an elevated subway line cutting through their neighborhood. Every local politician also objected, and by 2002, and the mayoralty of Michael Bloomberg, the idea was dead. But Cuomo picked up an essential lesson from the ordeal — communities are more receptive to an elevated line that cruises along an existing right-of-way than an elevated train that would shade an entire neighborhood. By the time he got to announcing his version of a LaGuardia rail connection, he had internalized that lesson completely. As long as the AirTrain avoided anywhere anyone actually lived, it could be built.
Looking at a map, Willets Point sits closer to the airport than the N’s terminus. But it’s on the wrong side of the airport. In a world where Cuomo’s AirTrain exists, it would be served by the already chronically crowded 7 train, as well as the Long Island Rail Road station at Willets Point. That LIRR station, however, is on the Port Washington Branch, cutting it off from the rest of the LIRR system. So if you were on Long Island and wanted to get to LGA via Cuomo’s AirTrain, you would have to take a train to Jamaica, then probably another one to Woodside, and finally grabbing a train going back just the way you came, but bound for Port Washington. If you had the choice of doing that, or taking a car, you would take a car.
Studies have shown that Cuomo’s proposal will save no one any time whatsoever from the existing bus options, which have the advantage of connecting to the express trains at Roosevelt-74th Street in Jackson Heights. In addition, there’s no plans to add any capacity whatsoever on the 7 line, nor is it feasible to add any non-rush hour express service without a fourth track on the elevated line, making Willets Point almost forty minutes away from Grand Central, provided you’re receiving the fastest service the 7 train has to offer.
But Cuomo is insisting on the Willets Point connection because it’s the most expedient. By building above a train depot and having the train zip alongside the Grand Central parkway, he’ll avoid any community complaints. And, he’ll finally have a train.
Not only is the state moving ahead with this plan under the ludicrous idea that it will get riders from midtown to LGA in thirty minutes, but it appears to be staking a claim to much of the area around Willets Point, including a contested piece of land where the city has been removing car repair shops off the land for more than a decade. Instead of even pretending they’ll be building a mixed-use community on the toxic location (like local officials have done), the governor’s RFP states that LaGuardia’s car rental companies will go there instead.
So what will this unnecessary rail link, which might even make commutes worse for New Yorkers on the 7 line, cost taxpayers? Like almost all of Cuomo’s projects, that’s still undisclosed. Last year Cuomo tossed out $450 million, a price that transit experts found to be wildly optimistic. At the time, he said that amount would come from “existing sources.” Now, that number is no longer being bandied about. In the RFP, Cuomo has announced that the financing would come from “public-private partnerships,” a preferred method of Cuomo’s for avoiding huge hits to the budget for infrastructure spending by offering massive tax breaks to developers instead. One wonders how much in lost tax revenue this train from nowhere will eventually cost New York State, but rest assured, it will likely be far more than $450 million.
Is there any chance to get Cuomo to back off his plan? What about an AirTrain that runs along the Grand Central from Jackson Heights instead, and connects to the E/F/M/R and 7 trains, and sits two 7 train stops away from the LIRR? Wouldn’t that be worth consideration? Or, what about giving the N extension another shot? Unfortunately, neither of these are being considered at all. We’re stuck with the Willets Point AirTrain, which Cuomo says it will be up and running by 2023. We’ll be living with the governor’s shortsightedness and penchant for sparkly toys that serve no real purpose for long after.