New York City’s three major airports are notoriously difficult to reach by public transportation. While other global cities such as Paris, London and Tokyo all offer one seat rides to their respective airports, two or three seats is the norm for trips to JFK, Newark and LaGuardia Airports. No public transportation trip is more difficult than to LaGuardia in spite of its relative proximity to Midtown Manhattan.
LaGuardia’s inaccessibility owes in large part to a lack of a rail link. Though the AirTrains that provide service to Newark and JFK Airports are not without their own significant problems (Newark’s in particular), people that are airport bound can at least be certain that they will avoid automobile traffic on highways. To reach LaGuardia airport, travelers have a choice of five bus lines. The most viable of these bus lines is the Q70, which provides direct service from the Jackson Heights and Woodside Subway and LIRR stations. Though a fine service, it is still at the mercy of traffic on local roads and on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, which at times has been so bad that departing passengers have ditched their vehicles and walked to the airport.
Enter New York Governor Andrew Cuomo who on June 25th signed legislation authorizing the initiation of a planning study for LaGuardia Airport’s very own AirTrain. According to the Daily News, Cuomo asked “How can you not have a rail train to the city from a New York airport?…It’s just incomprehensible.” The AirTrain is the ribbon on top of an $8 billion renovation of the airport, which Vice President Joe Biden called “third world” in 2016 and has become one of the Governor’s pet projects.
In an effort to step on as few toes as possible, to avoid the wrath of NIMBYs and to move the project forward as quickly as possible (as is Cuomo’s style), the Governor and his team have picked a route that avoids any use of eminent domain. To achieve this, the new 1.5 mile long AirTrain will be routed above the Grand Central Parkway away from Manhattan to the Mets-Willets point 7 train and LIRR stations. Manhattan-bound tourists and business people will have to backtrack before eventually making their way west towards Midtown on a crowded 7 train or on a Port Washington line LIRR train, which runs infrequently and costs significantly more than a subway swipe. It is hard to imagine that an AirTrain to the LIRR connection to Penn Station or to Grand Central Terminal (when East Side Access is complete) will take less than 30-minutes as the Governor’s office advertises. Avoiding the LIRR’s $6.25-$8.75 fare means a ride on the at capacity 7 line, which runs local most of the day. A local ride from Mets-Willets Point station to Grand Central takes 30 minutes on its own.
Better alternatives to the wrong-way AirTrain that the Governor is pushing forward have been suggested for decades. In the late 1990’s, planners proposed extending the N train to the airport from its terminus at Ditmars Avenue in Astoria. This is likely the best option to be proposed because it offers what all New York airports lack, a one seat ride to Midtown Manhattan (and for the cost of a subway swipe). But Astoria NIMBYs and then city council representative Peter Vallone managed to sink it. Other rail links have been proposed over the years, as detailed here, but none gained serious traction until Cuomo began to champion the current AirTrain iteration.
The MTA continues to be in a state of emergency as Cuomo declared last summer. Buses are slower than ever and hemorrhaging riders. The Subway is literally crumbling back into the earth that was dug to build it a hundred years ago. These services and their 8 million daily riders could make great use of the $1.5 billion that will be spent on the LaGuardia AirTrain. Improving airport transportation connections is undoubtedly a noble and necessary cause, but is it really a priority right now with the system as a whole in crisis? Unfortunately, in the name of building things as fast and easily as possible the AirTrain along a circuitous route is getting priority. If that money is destined to be spent on the AirTrain, the state should at least connect it to the Jackson Heights Subway station, which is served by five subway lines, two of them express. Most of the route to that station would be over highways, just like the current plan.
Perhaps the simplest and most cost effective option would be improving the humble bus lines that connect LaGuardia airport today. The city and state could work together to provide bus-only lanes and traffic signal priority for the Q70 and M60 Select Bus Lines, which would allow them to speed past passenger cars and trucks that currently block their way. Though improving buses is undoubtedly the least glamorous option, it is the most practical. Hopefully someday LaGuardia would get its rail link, in the form of an N/W trains extension. But, until the transportation system as a whole is saved from imminent collapse, simple bus improvements must suffice.