Mar. 13, 2023 By Ben Brachfeld
The Port Authority on Monday hammered the final nail in the coffin of the controversial proposal to build an AirTrain to LaGuardia Airport.
The move comes more than a year after Gov. Kathy Hochul halted the plan, a pet project of her disgraced predecessor Andrew Cuomo, and commissioned a study for alternatives. On Monday, the Port Authority’s “expert panel” released its final report, shunning the long-contentious AirTrain and declaring the best option to be a new shuttle bus between the airport and the end of the N/W subway line in Astoria, Queens.
“New Yorkers deserve world-class transportation to world-class airports,” the governor said in a statement. “Shortly after taking office, I asked the Port Authority to thoroughly examine mass transit solutions for LaGuardia Airport that would reduce car traffic and increase connectivity, while meeting the demand of our customers. I am grateful to the expert panel, the technical consultants, and the Port Authority for providing a clear, cost-effective path forward with an emissions-free transit solution for customers.”
The panel said the best option is to expand bus service—including a new non-stop shuttle bus between the Astoria-Ditmars Boulevard N/W subway stop and the airport—with all-electric buses running along dedicated bus lanes on 31st Street and 19th Avenue.
The Port Authority also advanced a proposal to improve the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s free Q70 bus to LaGuardia with transit signal priority in Jackson Heights and Woodside and a dedicated bus lane along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway shoulder between Northern and Astoria boulevards.
“The MTA looks forward to continuing to work with the Port Authority as it rolls out its new direct airport shuttle service, improving connections to LaGuardia Airport,” said MTA chief of external relations John McCarthy. “We also look forward to working cooperatively on the panel’s recommendations regarding improvements to the Q70 bus service to LaGuardia from Woodside and Jackson Heights.”
Port Authority spokesperson Tom Topousis said that the bi-state agency plans to fund and run the shuttle bus, instead of the MTA. A decision has not been made as to whether the shuttle will be free like the Q70, he said.
Cuomo had long advocated for the LaGuardia AirTrain proposal, which would have run between the airport and the 7 train at Willets Point, and it got full approval from the Federal Aviation Administration in July 2021. But the plan, often referred to as Cuomo’s pet project, was controversial from the start.
For one, it was an odd route between Manhattan and LaGuardia, since riders would have had to go out to Willets Point vis-a-vis a connection to the 7 train and then back toward the airport. The project’s cost had also ballooned more than five times the initial $450 million projection, ultimately carrying a $2.4 billion price tag. The AirTrain itself, which has served Kennedy Airport for two decades, is also controversial, costing riders a cool $8.25, three times a subway fare.
Environmental groups also objected, ultimately suing the FAA and Port Authority, arguing the proposal would cost Queens residents precious parkland. Local community groups also objected, worried about the impact on property values.
After Cuomo resigned amid a sexual harassment scandal, and Hochul took the state’s reins, she moved to abandon the politically-toxic project and commissioned the expert panel to come up with other suggestions.
The experts — namely former city Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, former Transport for London commissioner Mike Brown, and Denver International Airport CEO Philip Washington, who is currently President Joe Biden’s nominee to head the FAA — wrote in a statement that the bus improvements can be expected within the next five years. The Port Authority forecasts that the improved bus service would serve up to 5 million riders annually, and cost about $500 million to implement, versus up to $6.2 billion for an AirTrain.
Advocates at the Riders Alliance cheered the AirTrain proposal’s flight to the “scrapheap of history,” and the new proposal to boost bus service.
“It’s so refreshing to see government leaders admit a mistake and change course before it’s too late,” said Riders Alliance spokesperson Danny Pearlstein. “The backwards boondoggle AirTrain belongs just where it landed, on the scrapheap of history. Much better bus service is the right answer both for Queens riders and the travelers who pass through their neighborhoods on the way to the airport.”
In the bigger picture, though, all the experts agreed that the ideal option would be extending the N and W trains from Astoria to LaGuardia — the New York region’s only major airport without a rail connection — but they said that cost and engineering concerns rendered that option unfeasible.
FAA regulations prohibit above-ground structures in the flight path near airport runways, so while the N/W line is above-ground in Queens, an above-ground subway extension was out of the cards since it would conflict with Runway 4 at LaGuardia. Tunneling for an underground extension was another option, but proved too costly and challenging from an engineering perspective.
“The primary issue is that the path of the subway extension would come into conflict with the approach to runway 04, thus requiring a tunnel,” said Topousis, the Port Authority spokesperson. “The tunnel would be one of the more difficult hurdles and the consultants said additional studies would need to be done to determine if it’s even feasible, in part because of the labyrinth of underground utilities in that area.”
The study notes that any subway extension proposals would cost at minimum $5.4 billion and take at least 12 years to construct.
Still, Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, while praising the AirTrain’s demise, said further study is still warranted on proposals like a ferry route and bus rapid transit (where buses have exclusive right-of-way), as well as a subway extension, even though the Port Authority shot all those down in the report.
“In light of this decision, I renew my previous call on our government partners to conduct a more detailed, thorough study on establishing ferry service to LaGuardia while also exploring the establishment of a Bus Rapid Transit system between the Jackson Heights transportation hub and the airport, as well as the potential extension of the N/W subway line,” said Richards. “In the short term, I look forward to discussions with the MTA and the Port Authority on improving the frequency of service along the Q70 bus line and the proposed shuttle service from Astoria to LaGuardia, respectively.”