» New York City’s LaGuardia Airport is its rail-inaccessible stepchild. A proposal to spend half a billion dollars on a new transit link there, however, may do little for most of the region.
LaGuardia Airport is the New York City airport closest to the nation’s largest business district in Midtown Manhattan. Getting there, however, is inconvenient and slow for people who rely on transit and expensive — and often also slow — for those who receive rides in cabs or shuttles. In other words, the experience of reaching the airport leaves something to be desired.
The New York region’s two other major airports — Newark and J.F.K. — each have dedicated AirTrain services that connect to adjacent commuter rail (and Subway services, in the case of J.F.K.). These lines were built by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in the 1990s and 2000s to improve transit access to these airports, leaving only LaGuardia without a rail link of its own.
This week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo stepped in, claiming to have solved the problem. His “Opportunity Agenda” for 2015, which includes a number of worthwhile projects such as Penn Station Access for Metro-North commuter trains, includes an AirTrain line to LaGuardia. As proposed, the project would do next to nothing to improve access to the airport. In fact, compared to existing transit services, most riders using the AirTrain would spend more time traveling to LaGuardia than they do now.
There is no hope that this AirTrain will “solve” the access to LaGuardia problem.
Governor Cuomo’s AirTrain, at least according to his press releases, would be built by the Port Authority and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and cost $450 million. Though funding for the project has not yet been identified, it could come from “existing sources,” though it is unclear what exactly that means.
As the map at the top of this article shows, Governor Cuomo’s proposed AirTrain would extend from LaGuardia Airport south along the Grand Central Parkway and then turn off to the east (the line in red). A terminus would be constructed south of the 7 Subway station at Mets-Willets Point and about 600 feet north of the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) station there. Though materials announcing the project suggested the route would be 1.5 miles long, my estimate suggests it would be about 2.3 miles.
The project’s “AirTrain” name suggests it would provide services using relatively short trains operating on an independent guideway. The bizarre rendering included in the governor’s presentation, pictured below, suggests that the project would feature an elevated guideway and train cars that appear to have been lifted from the LIRR. One can only assume that this image was photoshopped by someone who is not familiar with transportation technology.
The governor’s proposed route has not been studied in-depth; indeed, if the project’s sponsors expect to receive federal matching funds, it will have to undergo an alternative analysis that considers different routes and technologies. But the project’s relatively low cost (compared to the $10 billion LIRR East Side Access project, it’s peanuts) suggests that it could be funded purely with local or state dollars, which would not require that sort of review.
Yet the route clearly has been informed by past attempts to create rail links between the existing rail transit system and LaGuardia. Between 1998 and 2003, the City of New York and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority studied and attempted to fund an extension of the N Subway line from Astoria in western Queens to the airport. That roughly 2.9-mile expansion (shown in blue in the map above) was opposed vigorously by community groups that did not want to see an elevated train in their backyards. Most Queens politicians took up the opposition, and the tight budgetary environment post-9/11 provided an excuse to kill the project.
Governor Cuomo’s project would not have any of the negative community effects the proposal from fifteen years ago had. Its elevated tracks would be hidden behind a much more noisy and already-existing highway. Moreover, its terminus station at Mets-Willets Point would be surrounded by parking lots and sports facilities.
These attempts to shape a project that does nothing to disturb existing communities, however, has produced a proposal that would be worthless in terms of time savings for people traveling from the airport in almost all directions.
As the following chart demonstrates, transit travel times from LaGuardia to destinations throughout New York City — from Grand Central in Midtown Manhattan to Borough Hall in downtown Brooklyn to Jamaica in central Queens to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx — would be longer for passengers using the AirTrain than for passengers using existing transit services already offered by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.* This finding suggests that for most people in the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and Long Island, AirTrain services will not be beneficial from a time perspective.
Given the fact that the AirTrain services would likely be automated, therefore reducing labor costs, it may be reasonable to assume that existing transit services to the airport would be eliminated to save costs. In other words, people may be forced to switch into the new, slower rail option.
For people coming from Flushing or Port Washington, directly to the east of the Mets-Willets Point station, travel times would be lower with the AirTrain service. Similarly, people coming from Penn Station and using the LIRR to get to Mets-Willets Point would have a slightly shorter commute to the airport with the AirTrain. However, it is worth emphasizing that LIRR service to this station only occurs on game days; LIRR has not indicated it would provide additional service for the AirTrain, and even if it did, trains would likely only come every half-hour during off-peak periods, suggesting that for most travelers from Penn Station, existing transit services to LaGuardia are faster than the AirTrain would be.
It’s hard to imagine how the state can justify spending half a billion dollars on a transit project that will increase travel times for most people.
The truth is that the City and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority have significantly improved bus service to LaGuardia over the past few years, introducing an improved limited-stop service from Woodside and Jackson Heights in 2013 and an improved M60 bus from Manhattan in 2014. These services are still slower than they ought to be, but, when combined with the subways they link to, they’re faster than the AirTrain would be, primarily because Mets-Willets point is not only too far east from the center of the region’s population but also because it is not a major interchange point.
How effective would other potential routes to LaGuardia be for reducing travel times for passengers?
The following chart compares travel times from LaGuardia to the same destinations throughout the city, but this time between not only existing transit services and the governor’s AirTrain proposal, but also the proposal to extend the N train from Astoria from fifteen years back (in blue) and an alternative–a rail route connecting Jackson Heights and the Airport via the Grand Central Parkway and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (in orange, and on map above as well).
The alternative rail route to Jackson Heights could terminate near the Subway station at Broadway and Roosevelt in central Queens, where the 7, E, F, R, and M trains stop, or it could continue, likely at a very high expense, 2,000 feet to the Woodside stop on the LIRR. This route would be about 2.9 miles (or 3.3 miles with the LIRR connection).
This comparison suggests that, in almost every case, existing transit services offer travel times that are either significantly faster or similar to travel times that would be provided even by the N train extension or a new route from Jackson Heights. From Penn Station or Jamaica, an AirTrain connection to the LIRR at Woodside would provide considerable time savings, but in most other cases, existing services are just as effective.
In other words, the governor’s proposal and reasonable alternatives would do little to improve transit to LaGuardia. Very expensive alternatives, such as an express subway from Grand Central, would save significant time, but those are far more expensive than anyone in office appears willing to commit to at the moment. This suggests that perhaps a rail link to the airport — while a popular idea — may not be particularly effective in actually saving people time. If the AirTrain were built as the governor is proposing, it would likely do little to cut down on congestion at the airport. It is worth nothing that both Newark and J.F.K., despite their rail services, remain overwhelmed with vehicles waiting to pick up or drop off passengers.
But even if the AirTrain to LaGuardia were magically very effective at reducing travel times, it should not be the New York region’s transit priority. The second phase of the Second Avenue Subway, which would extend from 96th Street to 125th Street the line that is currently under construction, is expected to attract 100,000 riders a day. Yet it lacks committed funding sources. Extended Subway lines in the outer boroughs, such as a Nostrand Avenue Subway or the Triboro-RX, are completely off the political radar, despite the fact that they would serve hundreds of thousands of people daily, reduce travel times significantly, and do plenty to improve quality of life in poor and working class neighborhoods. Instead we’re talking about building a train to the airport.
The fact is that the governor of New York State, like most people in elected office, doesn’t take transit much and certainly isn’t reliant on it; to put matters bluntly, in a transit-oriented city like New York, he’s a member of the economic and social elite. This elite is unprepared to take advantage (or, in many cases, even know about) bus services that exist, and can only envision taking a train in one circumstance: When traveling to and from the airport. For him, a train to the airport is a must, even if it doesn’t actually improve transportation objectives and even if it isn’t the top priority compared to other options in a constrained spending environment.
* The charts in this article assume the following:
- Average AirTrain or Subway speeds of 20 mph.
- Transfer times between existing services and AirTrain of 5 minutes, with the exception of travelers from Jackson Heights Subway services (10 minutes) and travelers from the Mets-Willets Points Long Island Rail Road station (10 minutes), because of longer walking times.