No doubt the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council has its reasons, but the planning group’s list of projects—for which it seeks $15 billion in federal funding support over the next five years—includes the LaGuardia Airport AirTrain.
It was planned as a 1.5-mile, $2-billion elevated rail line connecting the airport to the region’s transportation network. For anyone who knows the torments of sitting in New York City area traffic or has benefited from Kennedy International Airport’s elevated rail line, the LaGuardia project seemed to make sense. But it really didn’t—not how it was originally conceived and routed. And although the council list does not reflect this, change is likely.
There have been valid criticisms of routing decisions on other complex rail projects that proved controversial years after being made. California’s high-speed rail project route was shaped by politics, which added greatly to its cost. The Minneapolis Southwest light-rail extension goes around, not through, the heart of uptown Minneapolis, another regret too late to fix now.
But the LaGuardia Airport AirTrain was doubted from the minute it emerged from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Some argued it would increase rather than cut travel time and that only riders from parts of Queens or a few suburban Nassau County, N.Y., towns would benefit. Those traveling to or from New York City would have to rely on crowded subways and an overtaxed Long Island Rail Road.
The LaGuardia Airport AirTrain plan favored by ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo remains on a planned project list despite good reasons why it shouldn’t be there.
Connection points to other city communities made more sense. “Even something as simple as dedicated bus access to LaGuardia could deliver more benefits than the AirTrain and requires only some paint and the elimination of some parking spots,” wrote transportation blogger Benjamin Kabak in 2020.
Project doubts percolating among MTA’s own staff erupted into public view one year later when former Gov. Andrew Cuomo resigned. Port Authority staff urged agency leaders to halt AirTrain, alleging that Cuomo and his staff “repeatedly pushed the agency to make non-transparent, politically motivated decisions” about the project.
Thankfully, his successor and just re-elected Gov. Kathy Hochul hit the brakes on the AirTrain plan, with the Port Authority responding early this year to propose alternative routes and even dedicated bus lanes.
With California and Minneapolis projects mired in trouble, New York and New Jersey soon must begin construction on still another risky megaproject: the Gateway Tunnel, which is needed to replace a very old existing tunnel that carries vital rail lines connecting Manhattan and New Jersey.
Should that project run into cost trouble, it will require much public goodwill. Hopefully Gateway won’t also end up on the bad project list and will actually generate lots of infrastructure investment enthusiasm.
Good planning decisions make for better outcomes—so the AirTrain, at least in its original form, needs to be allowed to die a dignified death.