Cuomo’s La Guardia AirTrain is already off the rails
22nd January 2020

There was one takeaway last week for a few New Yorkers who schlepped out to a remote airport hotel for a public meeting: The La Guardia AirTrain is coming. Cry all you want about its inefficiency and irrationality.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s La Guardia AirTrain proposal has long faced fierce criticism. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose district includes the airport, has demanded the Port Authority consider cheaper options, such as bus and ferry service. At public hearings held by the Federal Aviation Administration, which is conducting its own analysis of the project for regulatory reasons, 82 percent of New Yorkers’ comments were negative.

Critics have no end of good reasons. The AirTrain would connect to the overcrowded 7 line at Mets-Willets Point, more remote than La Guardia itself. One analysis finds that existing buses are faster than the AirTrain to most Manhattan destinations. The cost, $2.05 billion for 1.5 miles, is exorbitant.

Nevertheless, at a presentation Tuesday and Wednesday evening at the La Guardia Airport Marriott, FAA consultants claimed that out of 46 La Guardia transit options, only Cuomo’s AirTrain would work. They drew this conclusion from evaluating options on a list of inflexible criteria decided in collaboration with the Port Authority, which guaranteed that only Cuomo’s proposal would get a fair shake.

First, transit had to be “time certain,” eliminating every option for bus service. FAA consultants separately told me on Wednesday and a Manhattan community board member on Tuesday that the Port Authority wouldn’t provide bus lanes on airport grounds. Therefore, “buses would be affected by traffic volumes and congestion on the on-Airport roadway network,” even if the city designated bus lanes on the roads to the airport. The FAA likewise ruled out ferry service because passengers would need buses to get from the ferry to the airport terminals.

Bus options were doubly excluded by requirements that new transit not “affect on-road transportation or traffic” nor cause any “increase in roadway congestion on off-Airport roadways.” When a former subway planner and I asked why the FAA assumed that bus lanes increase congestion, one consultant called it “common sense” and said the agency didn’t study the question quantitatively. But many passengers taking private cars would gladly switch to a faster bus. The 14th Street busway, for instance, ­attracted thousands of riders without clogging parallel streets.

After this initial screening, the only practical options left were trains. The FAA then eliminated every rail option except Cuomo’s proposal because of “service disruption” or “infrastructure effects”: Every existing structure in Queens was untouchable. An extension of the N/W to La Guardia, as the MTA proposed in the 1990s, failed, because it would require modifying an Amtrak bridge or temporarily narrowing streets; an elevated connection to Woodside would require modifying a freeway interchange.

Every underground option would affect water mains or sewers — an annoyance, but subway builders relocate sewers routinely. Only the backward AirTrain was left. ­Finally, the FAA took the Port ­Authority’s cost estimate on faith and declared that Cuomo’s AirTrain passed a lax cost-effectiveness check: The project just needed to cost less than $5.13 billion.

The FAA study rests on absurdly black-and-white logic. Transit planning requires tradeoffs. New Yorkers might accept temporarily closing a few lanes for a more direct line that saves money. But by insisting that any “infrastructure effects” or “time uncertainty” above zero was unacceptable, the FAA dodged these questions completely.

The agency’s logic, though, suits Cuomo’s mentality: Don’t annoy any voters, no matter the cost. Why not, from his perspective, spend billions from the Port Authority’s opaque slush fund if it keeps some drivers in Queens from complaining about a bus lane?

It’s likely too late to stop the AirTrain. FAA consultants made it clear that they consider objections misinformed: Once the project is built, the public will see the light.

To the Port Authority, meanwhile, New Yorkers’ anger pales in comparison to Cuomo’s desire to add a line to his résumé. Only one solution can prevent future boondoggles: Break up the Port Authority — long among the nation’s most unaccountable and corrupt public agencies — and return control over city infrastructure to officials directly accountable to voters.

Connor Harris is a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute.

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