Fact-Checking Cuomo’s LaGuardia Air Train

Written by Larry Penner, FTA Region 2 (Ret.)
image description

June 25, 2018: New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo signs legislation at World Trade Center 7 clearing the path for the creation of an Air Train link between LaGuardia Airport and Willets Point, Queens. The Willets Point link will provide access to the New York City Subway system and the Long Island Rail Road. LaGuardia Airport is the only major airport on the East Coast currently without rail service. Photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

Opponents of the LaGuardia Air Train looking for alternatives have many reasons to be concerned about its future impacts. To build a train to the plane within five years for $2 billion is a planner’s dream. It will be a nightmare for taxpayers and riders. Count on cost overruns approaching $1 billion, and multi-year construction delays reaching beneficial use. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey and its consultants, along with labor unions and construction contractors who would benefit by this project, refuse to acknowledge this reality. As well, Cuomo and PANY&NJ Executive Director Rick Cotton promise a 30-minute or less connection from LaGuardia Air Port to Midtown Manhattan. This is a myth.

COSTS TO BUILD

Consider this project’s history to date. In 2014, Cuomo estimated the cost would be $450 million with a completion date of 2019. I predicted that both his cost and promised completion date were unrealistic. Both have proven to be true. The original Port Authority 2017-2026 capital plan lists this project at $1 billion. It was subsequently revised to $1.5 billion several years ago and today stands at $2.05 billion. Costs will be further refined as the project progresses through the environmental review process, preliminary and final design and award of construction contracts, followed by change orders to the base contracts during construction, due to last minute changes in scope or unforeseen site conditions. The anticipated final potential cost for the Air Train could end up several hundred million to a billion more.

Five years have passed, with little progress to date. There are no completed environmental documents or any preliminary design and engineering efforts necessary to validate construction costs. The ongoing environmental review process is more complicated. More time will be needed to look at new proposed concepts of building over the Flushing Bay Promenade or Flushing Bay. Using one of these concepts rather than the original option of using the Grand Central Parkway median could easily add several hundred million to construction costs.

New York City is spending $200 million on a cleanup project to bring back wetlands on the shore and upgrade the sewer system for Flushing Bay. Much of this work will be performed on the same waterfront shoreline as the proposed LaGuardia Air Train. How much of this environmental remediation work will have to be repeated due to construction of the Air Train? Will this issue be dealt with in the Federal Aviation Administration Environmental Impact Statement? Are the two projects compatible? Will taxpayers be stuck paying twice for the same work?

ONE-SEAT RIDE? FAST SERVICE?

Cuomo’s belief that this will provide a “one-seat ride” for those traveling to and from LaGuardia Airport isn’t born out by the facts. There will be significant conflicts at the New York City Transit subway and Long Island Rail Road Mets Willets Point stations. Why would travelers with luggage and those with children attempt to squeeze onto already-packed rush hour #7 subway and Port Washington Branch LIRR trains? Why would any LIRR riders from other branches want to first drive or take a taxi to a local Queens, Nassau or Suffolk County train station, and then have to change at Jamaica and again at Woodside before transferring a third time to a Port Washington branch train before reaching the LaGuardia Air Train? These same trains frequently have riders standing in the aisles during rush hours. People attending New York Mets games and concerts at Citi Field, or events at Arthur Ash Stadium (like the U.S. Open) also use this station. Others travel to Flushing Meadow Park and Queens Zoo.

Cuomo wants frequent, direct LIRR service on the Port Washington Branch connecting Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal East Side Access with LIRR’s Mets Willets Point station to support his $2 billion Air Train. This will require six trains per hour in each direction to support ten-minute headways. It is needed to fulfill his promised 30-minute travel time from LaGuardia Airport to Midtown Manhattan. Yet, even with implementation of Positive Train Control, it may not be possible for the Port Washington LIRR branch to accommodate these additional trains during rush hour.

There is no room to run additional trains in or out of Penn Station during rush hours via the East River tunnels with connections via the Port Washington LIRR branch. This conflicts with Cuomo’s promise to have the LIRR provide frequent service between Penn Station and the Mets Willets Point LIRR Station. What about service from Grand Central Terminal once LIRR East Side Access is completed in December 2022? Three of four East River tunnels running inbound during the a.m. and outbound p.m. rush hours have tight headways between trains. LIRR, New Jersey Transit and Amtrak share one tunnel for reverse movements, with equally tight rush hour headways. There is no Penn Station platform capacity to accommodate any additional trains during rush hour. If one of the four tunnels is temporarily out of service, the result is numerous delays and cancellations. 

Recent implementation of Communications-Based Train Control (CBTC) on the No. 7 subway in December 2018 (it was supposed to have been completed in October 2016) only resulted in increasing the number of trains per hour from 27 to 29 during rush hour. NYCT now has no other opportunity for increasing rush hour capacity.

As far as a 30-minute or less connection from LaGuardia to Midtown Manhattan, you will need seven minutes travel time on the Air Train from LaGuardia to the LIRR and NYC Transit Mets Willets Point stations. Travel time on the LIRR from Mets Willets Point to Penn Station is 17 minutes. Factor in up to six minutes to wait for a connection at Mets Willets Point for the LIRR or No. 7 subway to Times Square/42nd Street.

You will probably also need 17 minutes to reach the  LIRR East Side Access Grand Central Terminal facility. The 4 platforms and 8 tracks at this facility are the equivalent of 15 stories below ground. It will require another 5 to 10 minutes to get to Midtown street level. The No. 7 subway to Midtown Manhattan is a minimum of 25 minutes via express service, which only operates inbound morning and outbound evening, with no other express service except for major events at Shea Stadium. It’s 30 minutes on the local.

COST TO RIDE

PANY&NJ Chairman Cotton, MTA Chairman Patrick Foye or LIRR President Phil Eng have ever revealed what the additional operating costs would be. No one has identified the funding sources to pay for all this extra service. It will easily be in the millions. Are these funds included in the MTA LIRR operating budget in future years?

Since the Jamaica Air Train to JFK International Airport cost $7.50 one way, you have to assume it would be the same price for the LaGuardia Air Train. LIRR tickets cost $10.75 peak, $7.75 off-peak. Will the LIRR offer $4.50 same-day City Zone tickets on the weekend for Air Train riders as well? 

What would happen if the pilot LIRR Atlantic Branch Southeast Queens Commuter Rail Fare Equalization Program is expanded to include the Port Washington Branch? Many New York City elected officials, notably the 2021 Mayoral candidates, advocate a $2.75 LIRR fare for all local residents. This would assist those who live in two fare zones or so-called “transit deserts.” Just imagine several thousand new riders attempting to board LIRR trains between Little Neck and Flushing. How many Nassau County residents will drive to Queens for the cheaper fares? How would the LIRR accommodate these new riders and those using the LaGuardia Air Train?

When there are problems on the No. 7 subway, the LIRR cross-honors subway riders at a reduced fare. Imagine several thousand more of the 66,000 daily riders who board the 7 at Flushing Main Street attempting to squeeze onto already-crowded Port Washington Branch LIRR trains.

When you add up the costs and factor-in inconvenience, groups of two or more will be more likely to pool their resources to pay for a car service, taxi, Uber or Lyft. Any of these options would provide a simple one-seat ride to Manhattan. There would be no need to endure transfers at Penn Station or Grand Central Terminal to access buses or subways to reach a final destination. People would rather sit in traffic than have to go through several transfers, hauling luggage.

There is a simpler, potentially more cost-effective alternative: A one-seat ride could be accomplished by extending the NYCT N/W subway line to LaGuardia Airport. In January, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who opposes Cuomo’s plan, sent a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration asking why the agency had ignored objections to the LaGuardia Air Train from the community and chosen to disregard 46 alternatives to the plan. Ocasio-Cortez’s Congressional district includes the neighborhood around the airport.

“Given the results of the public comments, and concerns raised by community members of the cost, impact and practicality of the [Air Train], I request clarification on why … alternatives were eliminated from further consideration as viable options,” Ocasio-Cortez said. The alternatives she cited included ferry service, dedicated bus lanes and an elevated extension of the N/W subway line above Astoria Boulevard.

In 2014, Cuomo promised that the Air Train would be up and running within five years. Now he’s saying 2021. That’s impossible. Completion of the environmental review process may not result in a Record of Decision by the FAA until late 2020 or early 2021. The next step would be preliminary and final design and engineering, which will require two more years to complete. Cuomo will be lucky if construction begins in 2024 and is completed by year-end 2027.

Larry Penner is a transportation historian, writer and advocate who previously worked 31 years for the United States Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions in capital projects and programs for the MTA, NYC Transit, Long Island Rail Road, Metro North Railroad, MTA Bus, New Jersey Transit and 30 other transit agencies in New York and New Jersey.

Categories: Commuter/Regional, News, Passenger, Rapid Transit Tags: , ,