New York Today
The AirTrain to the airport, a pet project of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, was killed after its projected cost spiraled.
Good morning. It’s Thursday. We’ll look at why plans for an AirTrain to La Guardia Airport have been dropped — and with them, the promise of beating the traffic with a 30-minute ride on mass transit.
Don’t expect to take a train to your plane at La Guardia Airport. This week Gov. Kathy Hochul abandoned plans for a light-rail link to the airport like the AirTrain that has gone to Kennedy International Airport for almost 20 years. Like the one at Kennedy, the La Guardia AirTrain would not have gone there directly from Manhattan: You would first have had to take the subway to Queens to catch the AirTrain.
The La Guardia AirTrain was a pet project of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo and was intended to be the finishing touch on the $8 billion renovation of the airport. Two massive terminals at La Guardia that opened as part of the overhaul were designed to have AirTrain stations built into them when the time came. Now it seems that it never will.
I asked Patrick McGeehan, who writes about transportation and infrastructure for the Metro desk, to explain what doomed the project, starting with the cost.
Why did the price jump so much from the original $450 million cost estimate? Was the original estimate too low?
When former Gov. Andrew Cuomo sprang the idea in a speech eight years ago, he said it would cost $450 million. But transportation experts questioned that estimate all along. It seemed like a lowball figure intended to help build support for the plan.
Two years later, the estimate had soared to $1.5 billion. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which would have built the AirTrain, raised the cost again in 2019 to $2.05 billion. The Port Authority says that was a solid estimate then, but rising prices of materials and supply-chain issues have since pushed the expected cost to about $2.4 billion.
The bus services the agency is opting for instead would cost about $500 million to get up and running, the Port Authority says.
Urban planners have long said that New York was behind European cities in providing easy access to airports. Access to the airports in New York is not easy, is it?
The problem here is that by the time La Guardia became a public airport just before World War II, it was surrounded by neighborhoods, and the subway lines were already in place. Connecting to them now would mean plowing through residential areas and sidestepping or rerouting a lot of giant sewer pipes and utility lines.
The engineers who studied the options concluded there was no feasible way to extend one of the nearby subway lines to the airport. Even if it could be done, they concluded, it would take at least 12 years and would cost as much as $7 billion.
The complicated environment around La Guardia is why the proposed route was such a head scratcher. To skirt the existing neighborhoods, it would have taken travelers who wanted to go to Manhattan in the opposite direction, toward Long Island, to transfer onto a city-bound train or subway.
One of the advantages of the La Guardia AirTrain was supposed to be shorter travel times to Manhattan. Can the less-expensive alternative Hochul chose — more bus service, including a shuttle bus between the airport and subway stations in Queens — get La Guardia passengers to and from Manhattan any faster than at present?
One main reason that transportation planners prefer rail links to airports is that they can run on schedules. Most buses hit traffic, and, as we all know, the traffic around LaGuardia can be brutal. This new plan seeks to reduce the effects of traffic by creating dedicated lanes for the buses in some places, though not all the way.
In theory, travelers can get from Midtown Manhattan to La Guardia in a little over 45 minutes right now using a combination of subway and bus. This plan could shave several minutes off that. But Cuomo’s dream of a 30-minute trip is dead.
Will the additional bus service reduce La Guardia travelers’ dependence on taxis and private cars?
Not by much. Most of La Guardia’s 30 million annual passengers get to and from the airport in cars, and that is not expected to change.
But the planners believe that the bus services can attract as many as five million riders a year. That’s nearly double the number of riders the AirTrain was expected to draw.
Hochul mentioned all-electric shuttle service. What would that be like?
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Port Authority have been moving toward electrifying their fleets, so it is expected that the buses to La Guardia will run primarily, if not solely, on rechargeable batteries. Officials from both agencies say the shuttle bus service that they intend to create as a link to the subway in Astoria, Queens, will be all-electric to minimize the effects on air quality there.
How much will the bus service cost? Also, as you just noted, more than one agency is involved here. Can they work together to speed the way?
Gov. Hochul decided last year to eliminate the fare on the existing Q70 bus service to La Guardia, and it is expected to remain free. The Port Authority has not decided if it will charge for the shuttle or even who will operate that service. That agency has no history of providing transportation on city streets.
Setting up the shuttle will require an unusual level of cooperation between the Port Authority and the M.T.A., which controls public transportation in the city. It remains to be seen if they can work well enough together to create services that travelers will actually use.
Enjoy a mostly sunny day near the mid-50s. At night, expect increasing clouds, with temps around the mid-40s.
In effect until April 6 (Passover).
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I had parked my car on Ludlow Street just south of Houston one day several years ago. When I returned to it, I noticed that another vehicle was squeezing into the small space in front of mine.
Realizing I had time left in my spot, I retrieved the parking receipt from my dashboard, approached the vehicle that had just parked in front of me and handed the ticket to the driver.
As I returned to my car to depart, the driver asked me to wait. He opened his back door and reached inside. Approaching me, he handed me a slightly used baseball.
“Thanks so much for the parking time,” he said. “I am a semipro umpire. Have a great day.”
— Don Leenig
Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.
Glad we could get together here. See you tomorrow. — J.B.
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Melissa Guerrero, Mathew Brownstein and Ed Shanahan contributed to New York Today. You can reach the team at firstname.lastname@example.org.