Hochul Walks LaGuardia AirTrain Tightrope (UPDATED)

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor

After only six weeks in office, New York state’s new chief executive, Gov. Kathy Hochul, is experiencing a test of her skills to walk the political tightrope; an essential task for any politician, especially in this part of the country.

The issue is the proposed LaGuardia AirTrain, a rail link that would connect with the MTA Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) and the 7-line (Flushing Line) of the subway system and serve as a shuttle taking riders to LaGuardia Airport. The project was well on its way to final approval, with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) having given it a green signal earlier this year. But disgraced former Gov. Andrew Cuomo had backed the project, and now that he is gone, it could be a whole new ball game. Elected officials and community groups in Queens, near the airport and the AirTrain’s proposed route, still oppose the project as strongly as Cuomo had supported it. Under Hockul, they hope to drive the final nails into its coffin, and some of them have asked a court to reverse the FAA’s approval.

On Oct. 4, the New York Post ran a story headlined “Hochul pulls plug on Cuomo’s $2.1B ‘wrong-way’ AirTrain,” which reported: “Gov. Kathy Hochul has told the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to find an alternative to disgraced ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s $2.1 billion ‘AirTrain’ pet project between LaGuardia Airport and eastern Queens.” Hochul’s statement, which appears on the state website: “New Yorkers deserve world-class transportation to world-class airports. I have asked the Port Authority to thoroughly examine alternative mass transit solutions for reducing car traffic and increasing connectivity to LaGuardia Airport.” She concluded: “We must ensure that our transportation projects are bold, visionary, and serve the needs of New Yorkers. I remain committed to working expeditiously to rebuild our infrastructure for the 21st century and to create jobs—not just at LaGuardia, but at all of our airports and transit hubs across New York.”

Whether or not Hochul’s statement marks a full-fledged about-face on the project remains to be seen, but it could have the effect of stopping it dead in its tracks and substituting a project that is more conventional and less expensive. According to the Post report, Hochul’s further statement appeared to disavow the project: “I don’t feel obligated to accept what I have inherited,” she added later Oct. 4 at a press conference in Brooklyn. “There were alternatives on the table that even the FAA said that people were saying people were not looking at as close as they should.”

Before his downfall, Cuomo ran the state with a “hands-on” approach, and a strong hand, at that. The New York MTA is a state agency, so it got the same treatment. Cuomo made, or at least attempted to make, structural changes that would strengthen his power. He succeeded in having tenure of appointed officials end when the person who appointed them leaves office (his own appointees will now be caught up in that change), but he failed to separate the positions of CEO and Board Chair at MTA, most likely due to the loss of his grip on power before being forced out of office. Sometimes his strong-handed approach helped the city’s transit riders, though. He bucked many MTA managers and got a “second opinion” from civil engineers on the faculties at Columbia and Cornell Universities about renovating the tunnels between Manhattan and Brooklyn on the L-train line; an opinion that enabled the infrastructure to be repaired in one year with reduced service at some hours, but that averted the planned alternative of a total line shutdown for 15 months.

Airport projects in the region differ from transit projects, where a governor can exert exclusive control. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey owns the three airports serving New York City and surrounding areas (LaGuardia and JFK in Queens, and Newark Airport in New Jersey). The Port Authority is a bi-state agency, which is accountable only to the governors of the two states, both of whom have veto power over it; a power that appears ironclad. In 2016, legislation proposing some mild reforms at the Port Authority garnered the unanimous support of every legislator in both states. Cuomo and Chris Christie, who was then governor of New Jersey, vetoed it. That was the end of the reform effort at that time, and there has not been another since.

Hochul appears to be flexing her share of muscle at the Port Authority, and we will eventually find out how it reacts. In the meantime, the agency continues to defend the AirTrain project. While the Port Authority’s primary website, did not contain any recent statements about the project, a “fact sheet” extolling its benefits touted improvements to Flushing Bay promenade and local parks, economic benefits and job creation, educational benefits, community impact mitigation, and environmental benefits (download below). An “industry briefing” by the Port Authority given on March 17, 2021 (download below) summarized the project. In effect, the Port Authority was rebutting claims by project opponents.

On the other side, opposition to the AirTrain project appears to be gaining strength. Stephen Nessin, transportation reporter for New York’s National Public Radio (NPR) station, reported Oct. 5 in the station’s affiliated publication Gothamist: “Standing outside a banquet hall in Corona, Queens, overlooking Jamaica Bay and the airport, along what would be the AirTrain route, state senators including Jessica Ramos, Leroy Comrie, Michael Gianaris, and John Liu, pushed Hochul to do more than consider other options, like bus or ferry service, or extending subway lines to the airport: They want her to unequivocally kill the AirTrain.”

Gianaris, especially, is a powerful local political leader, according to a report by Carl Campanile in the Oct. 4 edition of the Post: “State Sen. Michael Gianaris, a powerful Queens lawmaker instrumental in killing Cuomo’s signature deal to have e-tail giant Amazon open a headquarters along the borough’s waterfront is now setting his sights on the ‘wrong way’ $2.1 billion ‘AirTrain’ between LaGuardia Airport and Eastern Queens.”

The “wrong way” label stems from the line’s proposed alignment (see below and lead image, above). Riders would take the subway or the LIRR east from Manhattan to Willets Point (where the Mets play) and change to the AirTrain, which would proceed northwesterly toward the airport. Gannaris also complained about the project’s cost. Campanile reported: “A cross-section of Queens lawmakers representing racially, ethnically and ideologically diverse neighborhoods across the borough now oppose AirTrain.” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is one of them. She argued that the proposed route would encourage motorists to drive to the airport rather than taking transit.

The cost of the project is also a major issue driving the opposition. It could be the most expensive line of its type ever, according to a report by Canpanile and David Meyer in the Oct. 4 edition of the Post. They reported: “The project and its questionable route—away from Manhattan—would attract just 6,000 new daily transit riders, government watchdog Reinvent Albany and former city DOT official Jon Orcutt found in the report released on Friday [Oct. 1].” According to the report, that would come out to $350,000 per rider. The Post report continued: “nearly twice the $180,500 New York spent on the 2nd Avenue subway, the reigning ‘most expensive subway ever.’ The Port Authority disputed Reinvent Albany’s numbers in a statement that said “they have taken a 40-year capital investment and divided it by just one year of their underestimated ridership. The life of the AirTrain will be 40 years. Over that period, the capital cost per rider would be $5 or less.”

There is also a dispute over the claimed environmental benefits of the project. Nessen reported in Gothamist: “The watchdog group Reinvent Albany pointed out that the project is not as green as its proponents claim. Using the Port Authority’s own documents, the group finds only about 2 million users a year—compared to the agency’s 4.7 million estimate—will get to the airport using mass transit; most will take a car and either park or get dropped off at the AirTrain.”  

Andrew Albert, First Vice-Chair of the MTA’s Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee (PCAC) and the Transit Riders’ Council, and a rider-representative on the MTA Board, told the Post: “This route was chosen because it doesn’t anger neighbors … “I just don’t see people using it unless they’re coming from the east.” The report continued: “Albert said officials could lure more of those people onto transit with an extension of the N train from Astoria or a shorter AirTrain from 61st Street-Woodside.”

The dispute became more serious when local advocates filed a petition with the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, a federal appellate court based in New York City. The petitioners asked the court to set aside the FAA’s approval of the AirTrain project and the evaluation upon which the Record of Decision (ROD) underlying it was based “as arbitrary and capricious, an abuse of discretion, and contrary to law.”

The Riverkeeper site reported the filing of the action this way: “Represented by the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic, advocates filed a petition in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals Monday, September 20, alleging that the Federal Aviation Administration’s decision to greenlight the LaGuardia AirTrain was based on an unlawfully biased decision-making process that eliminated alternatives from review that likely could have limited the impact on local community members, avoided construction on waterfront parkland and provided a one-fare ride from Manhattan to the airport. The petitioner groups include Riverkeeper, Guardians of Flushing Bay, and Ditmars Boulevard Block Association.” (Download the petition below.)

Also, according to Riverkeeper: “The suit alleges that the FAA violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by eliminating from review feasible transit alternatives, including extending the N/W subway line for a ‘one seat ride’ directly from midtown Manhattan, ferry service, optimized bus service, or some combination thereof. The FAA itself recognized these flaws, as revealed by documents uncovered by a Riverkeeper Freedom of Information request earlier this year. Port Authority employees recently called for an Inspector General investigation, alleging former Governor Andrew M. Cuomo unduly influenced the decision to ensure that a project he publicly favored since 2015 was selected.”

Despite the strong-arm tactics that Cuomo had been alleged to use before he fell from power, the petitioners who are fighting against the AirTrain proposal are now rising up to blame him. The petition was filed recently, so time will tell whether or not the appellate court is willing to vacate the FAA’s decision and require the agency to start over, with more serious consideration of local transit alternatives to get people to airport.

That may not be necessary. Gov. Hochul told the Port Authority to go back to the drawing board, although her statement was not an unambiguous call for the alternatives that the petitioners want. Still, she is now one of the Port Authority bosses; the other is New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy. If Hochul can get the petitioners the airport access they want without court intervention, it will be a big win for her.

UPDATE, OCT. 14: Hochul has already won the first round. On Oct. 12, the Port Authority placed the plans for the line officially on hold by deciding to “pause further action” on the project. The New York Times reported a statement from the agency: “At Governor Hochul’s request, the Port Authority is undertaking a thorough review of potential alternative mass transit options to LaGuardia Airport. The agency will work in close consultation with independent experts and stakeholders, and will complete its work as expeditiously as possible, consistent with the need for the review to be thorough and rigorous.” 

Though Hochul won this battle, the war continues. Any new proposal will still have to be approved by the FAA. There is also the court case, which could still be settled or dismissed as moot if a new arrangement satisfies the plaintiffs. 

Still, Hochul succeeded in reversing the momentum that a pet project of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo had developed. As one of the Port Authority’s two bosses, she had the power to do that, and time will tell how much she will influence a project that will ultimately connect the airport to transit.

For more on Gov. Hochul and her anticipated impact (and vice-versa) on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the state-controlled transit provider in and around New York City, read Railway Age Contributing Editor David Peter Alan’s October feature, “New Direction for the MTA?” (p. 32).

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