Plans to Build AirTrain to La Guardia Officially Canceled

There will be no AirTrain to La Guardia Airport.

Governor Kathy Hochul has abandoned plans to build a light rail link to La Guardia after a review found that the cost of the project had ballooned to $2.4 billion, more than five times the original estimate.

When the predecessor of Ms. Hochul, Andrew M. Cuomo, first announced the pet project in 2015, he estimated the cost would be $450 million. After Mr Cuomo resigned in disgrace in 2021, the plan faced increasing opposition from elected officials and community groups. Hochul's mother stopped the project and ordered a review a few months after taking office.

Release of the assessment results on Monday, a panel of transportation experts recommended a less costly option of increasing public bus service to La Guardia and adding a shuttle between the airport and subway station in north Queens to reduce dependence on air passengers. in taxis and private cars.

“I accept the recommendations of this report, and I look forward to their immediate implementation by the Port Authority in close coordination with our partners at the MTA, municipal and federal governments,” said Ms. Hochul in a statement on Monday.

The addition of an AirTrain, similar to the one that has served Kennedy International Airport for nearly 20 years, is intended as the finishing touch to the $8 billion renovation of La Guardia. The two large terminals that opened at the airport in recent years as part of a revamp were designed to have AirTrain stations built into them.

Mr. Cuomo and his allies often complain that La Guardia is the only major East Coast airport without a railroad. Even Ms. Hochul, who served as lieutenant governor in 2018, said AirTrain will provide “easy access and travel options for people in Manhattan and on Long Island.”

The agency that operates La Guardia, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, has received expedited federal approval of its plans to build an AirTrain between La Guardia and Willets Point, where it can connect to the No. 1 subway line. Long Island Railroad. Port Authority officials initially promised that the link could get travelers from Midtown Manhattan to the airport in under 30 minutes.

Riverkeeper, an environmental advocacy group, and two community organizations in Queens, sued the Port Authority and Federal Aviation Administration in 2021 to block the AirTrain project, arguing that it would take the park along Flushing Bay from the historic Black neighborhood of East Elmhurst.

The soaring cost of building the project was one of the reasons the Port Authority supported the panel's recommendation to ignore it, said Rick Cotton, the agency's executive director.

“If you bring in outside experts to make recommendations, you have to accept their recommendations,” said Mr. Cotton in an interview. He said he would take the panel's recommendations to the Port Authority's Board of Commissioners within three months.

Three members of the panel – Janette Sadik-Khan, Mike Brown and Phillip A. Washington – said in a statement that they were unanimous in recommending that instead of building an AirTrain or extending a subway line to the airport, the Port Authority and transportation authorities should increase bus services. The existing Q70 to the airport and adds a special shuttle between La Guardia and the last stop on the N/W subway line at Astoria.

The panel agreed that expanding the subway to provide “single-seat travel” from Midtown was “the optimal way to achieve the best mass transit connection”. But they added that engineers reviewing the options could not find a viable way to build a subway extension to the cramped airport, which is surrounded by the Grand Central Parkway and the East River.

Even if a way were found to extend the subway that would not disrupt flight operations at La Guardia, the analysis concluded, it would take at least 12 years and cost $7 billion to build.

Repairing and speeding up the Q70 bus and creating an all-electric shuttle service will cost a fraction of that amount, only about $500 million, said Ms. Sadik-Khan, former New York City commissioner of transportation. He said the bus service would carry nearly twice as many passengers annually as the Willets Point AirTrain projected to handle.

Among the criticisms of the AirTrain plan are its indirect routes. Passengers arriving toward Manhattan should travel in the opposite direction to catch the subway or LIRR at Willets Point. The Port Authority chose that route, alongside park roads, to minimize the need to acquire private property. Community groups are also concerned about the impact on property values ​​in the neighborhood of La Guardia in northern Queens.

“Directing the nation's ships away from the rocky shoals of Willets Point is no small feat,” said Ms. Sadik-Khan, who is a principal at Bloomberg Associates. “Saving $1.5 billion while moving almost twice as many riders quickly and efficiently is pretty good.”

He was joined on the panel by Mr Brown, former Transport commissioner for London, and Mr Washington, former chief executive of Metro Los Angles.

Thomas K. Wright, president of the Regional Plans Association, a transportation research group, commended the Port Authority for maintaining a “transparent” alternative review process. “No one should think there is an improvement,” he said.

But Mr. Wright added that the solution chosen would have little impact on the decades-old problem of beating airport traffic in New York City.

“Improvement of bus services is not a game changer,” said Mr. Wright. “The majority of people flying in and out of LaGuardia will continue to use private cars and taxis,” he said.

Mr Cotton, serving on the orders of Ms. Hochul, said he has accepted that “things have changed” since he campaigned for AirTrain in the face of opposition from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other officials representing Queens. The agency can shift the balance of money to be spent on AirTrain to other planned projects, he said.

A transportation authority spokesman, John J. McCarthy, said in a statement that the agency looks forward to continuing to work with the Port Authority “as it launches its new direct airport shuttle service” and will work closely on the panel's recommended Q70 Service upgrade.