Transit

Cuomo’s LaGuardia AirTrain Looks Like a $1.5 Billion Boondoggle

The governor is promising half-hour rides from midtown, but most air travelers will still be better off taking the bus

by

Governor Cuomo and the Port Authority announced Monday that they’re moving forward with the LaGuardia AirTrain, which is intended to provide a much-desired rail connection between LaGuardia Airport and civilization.

Since the project was first proposed in 2015, its cost has soared from $450 million to a projected $1.5 billion before a single shovel has sunk into the ground. Nevertheless, Cuomo bragged at a Monday press conference that the AirTrain will allow people to travel between the airport and midtown in “thirty minutes or less,” which a Cuomo slide breaks down as sixteen minutes to take the LIRR from Penn Station (or Grand Central, if and when East Side Access is completed), then six minutes on the AirTrain from Willets Point to LaGuardia. The Port Authority projects the AirTrain will run every four minutes, and will also connect to the 7 train at the Mets-Willets Point station.

But the more one digs into the plan, the more it seems like a boondoggle in progress. The “30 minutes or less” vow only applies if you take the LIRR, since the 7 takes about 33 minutes itself to get from Grand Central to Willets Point. Further, Willets Point currently only gets LIRR service when Citi Field is holding events such as Mets games; and even when it does get service, it’s on the Port Washington LIRR branch which has thirty-minute headways during off-peak hours. If they’re heading to the airport outside of rush hour, then, the vast majority of travelers won’t get there in “30 minutes or less” unless they happen to arrive at the platform just as one of the two trains per hour pulls into the station.

It’s certainly possible LIRR could start providing regular train service to Willets Point, and also increase the frequency of trains, once the AirTrain is completed. But so far the railroad has not publicly committed to it, perhaps because of additional complicating factors. The Port Washington branch runs on a single track past Great Neck for the last three stops on the line, which means no trains can travel eastbound past Great Neck until the previous train has headed back out westbound. During peak hours, trains short-turn at Great Neck to allow about six trains per hour to run in the peak direction. The railroad could probably do this outside of peak hours to allow a greater frequency; the LIRR did not reply to Voice queries by publication time.

The bigger question, though, is how many riders would opt for the LIRR in the first place when the 7 train is there as an alternative. The MTA is currently in the final stages of installing a modern communications system on the 7 line and projects that, when it’s completed at the end of this year, it will run 29 trains per hour on that line, or a train about every two minutes. Even though the 7 takes some fifteen minutes longer to get from Willets Point to midtown than the LIRR, it will be cheaper — currently, a single ride on the subway is $2.75 while a one-way LIRR trip is $6.25 off-peak or $8.75 during peak hours — and more reliable. The LIRR would then need to decide if it’s the best use of the railroad’s money to run more frequent service on the Port Washington line just to accommodate the few passengers who may opt to take it to the AirTrain.

So forget the LIRR connection for now. Is the AirTrain, merely as a means of connecting to the 7, worth building? Again, it’s hard to see how. As transit analyst Yonah Freemark wrote three years ago, “transit travel times from LaGuardia to destinations throughout New York City…would be longer for passengers using the AirTrain than for passengers using existing transit services already offered by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.”

How is that possible? Going off Cuomo’s numbers, the new connection would provide a six-minute AirTrain ride on top of a 33-minute subway ride from Grand Central. That’s 39 minutes of pure train-riding time. Add in about five minutes of combined wait time and a few minutes for transferring between the two, and you’re looking at a good 45 minutes from Grand Central to LaGuardia via the AirTrain.

But many people don’t end their journeys at Grand Central or Penn Station — and this, in a nutshell, is the AirTrain’s biggest flaw. Most travelers don’t want to end their journeys in midtown, but that’s where the 7 train goes. And that’s why Freemark’s analysis found that existing travel options stack up just fine against the $1.5 billion AirTrain.

For example, the Q70 Select Bus Service provides an eleven-minute nonstop round trip every seven to ten minutes during most of the day from LaGuardia, not just to the 7 train, but to the E, F, M, and R in Jackson Heights as well. From there, it’s only three stops to Manhattan on the E/F (which, by the way, runs express all the time, not just one-way express during peak hours like the 7). The M60 SBS runs on a similar timetable, connecting the airport to the 1, B, C, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, N, and W trains along its route in Queens and upper Manhattan. Even with the AirTrain, these two bus routes will remain a faster and cheaper option to many Manhattan, Bronx, and Queens destinations. (While Brooklyn is currently poorly served by public transit connections to LaGuardia, the AirTrain will do nothing to help.)

If Cuomo were truly interested in improving access to and from LaGuardia — not that this is the point of flashy infrastructure projects — he would spend a tiny fraction of the $1.5 billion projected for the AirTrain on bolstering the existing buses by ensuring dedicated and unblocked bus lanes on the entire route, increasing frequency of service, and adding new routes.

But even if Cuomo is dead set on building something that runs on tracks, there are a few other options. One is to revisit the long-discussed N train extension to LaGuardia, which would at least provide a one-seat ride into Manhattan and Brooklyn even if, according to Freemark, it still wouldn’t reduce travel times by a significant margin. That proposal has consistently been met with opposition from local residents who don’t want more elevated tracks, and has therefore been largely regarded as a political nonstarter.

Speaking of political nonstarters, the only way to significantly decrease travel times for LaGuardia customers would be a dedicated express train from a major midtown hub such as Grand Central. But such a project is bound to be prohibitively expensive given New York City tunneling costs; you’d likely be looking at $3 billion just to dig a tunnel and install tracks, assuming Second Avenue Subway rates, but the actual price tag would almost certainly be much larger than that when factoring in other necessities like a station and trains. It would be hard to justify such a price tag against other municipal transit needs, considering LaGuardia transported 29.7 million passengers last year, or about a week’s worth of subway ridership.

But the most galling aspect of the AirTrain is that, despite popping up from time to time over the past few years with bright new renderings, there has been little in the way of public debate over the project.

“It is terrible public policy for the state to be moving ahead so quickly on this project with little public input and no conversations about alternatives,” Freemark writes in an email to the Voice, noting that last week the state legislature passed a law allowing the Port Authority to seize public land for the project. Maybe there really is political will for an express train from Grand Central, or perhaps deals can be made to make the N extension a reality, which at the very least is obviously preferable to the AirTrain. Either way, unless there’s a public process to discuss alternatives, we will never know. As Freemark puts it: “That’s a bad way to run a project of this cost.”

Most Popular