Airtrain to LaGuardia Airport

Airtrain JFK.  (c) 2003 C. Walton

Airtrain JFK. (c) 2003 C. Walton

Many, many years ago, there was talk about providing rapid transit access to LaGuardia Airport, much like there is access via rail to JFK Airport.  Many years later, JFK Airport, as part of its $10 Billion renovation package, got its Airtrain from all terminals to Howard Beach and Jamaica.  LaGuardia, the stepchild airport of New York City, got nothing.  I wonder why…

It could be due to the opposition of extending the (N) train from its current Ditmars Blvd terminus to the airport from people that have homes nearby.  Even if the extension would have been planned to operate up 31st Street to near the ConEdison plant and along the East River to the terminals, property owners complained that any construction would have lowered their property value, driving them to sell their houses.

It could also be due to the Port Authority of NY and NJ and its attitude that any transportation system built on their property must be operated by the Port Authority.  Which is the same reason that Airtrain JFK was built.

Years ago, New York City Transit ran the JFK Express from Midtown through Brooklyn to JFK Airport, specially fitted subway cars including soft seats, its own designation and livery, and an on-board surcharge for airport-bound customers only.  The one main flaw of the JFK Express and the reason it didn’t last too long:  the “Train to the Plane” stopped short at Howard Beach Station on the (A) line.  Which meant that passengers must board a JFK Express shuttle bus to all terminals.  The JFK shuttle bus was operated by New York City Transit, since the train wasn’t allowed on Port Authority property.  The shuttle buses that roamed the terminals became the only way around the airport, but traffic caused by excess buses and taxis made it a headache.  So, as part of the JFK rebuilding process, they created the Airtrain system.  The Port Authority built the Airtrain to replace the shuttle buses that roamed the airport and took passengers to the (A) train at Howard Beach, but they also added a second point of transit access, Jamaica Station, served by the Long Island Rail Road and the (E)(J)(Z) trains.  The Airtrain to Jamaica fit perfectly with LIRR’s Jamaica Station renovation and it gave airline passengers a second transit alternative to Midtown Manhattan.

LaGuardia Airport, though it wasn’t due for any renovations for decades, became more and more crowded in terms of traffic in and out of the airport, terminal capacity, and runway capacity, and with only bus access to the airport, it was increasingly thought to be in need of an Airtrain system much like JFK’s and EWR’s (Newark Liberty International Airport).  However, the cost of JFK’s Airtrain at $2 Billion coupled with the question of where it would go basically got the project shelved.  That is, until the Governor (Andrew Cuomo, of course) decided that he really wanted to build it, for several reasons.

One reason was that LaGuardia was becoming overly crowded and nearly at or beyond capacity.  Much of the airport had not received any upgrades in several decades.  United Airlines spent millions of dollars renovating its terminal, Terminal C, to improve the passenger experience.  The Port Authority, within the last year, just got around to improving parking facilities near that terminal.  The Delta Terminal, Terminal D, has not changed since at least the 1980s, maybe earlier.  Terminal B, the Central Terminal, is chaos especially during the weekday rush hours and Friday and Sunday nights.  There’s a set of lanes for curbside pick-ups, a set of lanes for transit, express, and courtesy shuttle buses, and an elevated ramp for curbside drop-offs.  The bus lanes are also used, illegally, as taxi overflow for the taxi stand at the west end of the terminal.  And the Marine Air Terminal, Terminal A, also known as the Delta Shuttle Terminal, is a 1930s-era terminal that only handles short-hop Delta flights (and US Airways flights, iinm) to DC and Boston.

Another reason could be because of Vice President Joe Biden’s comments about LaGuardia Airport last year.  As a somewhat frequent flier out of both LGA and JFK, I can say that, though JFK still has a long way to go in terms of the appearance and function of its terminals, it functions as a whole much better than any of LGA’s parts.  JFK has more runway space than LGA.  JFK has better transportation to the airport than LGA.  JFK has better transportation within the airport than LGA.  JFK has the capability of handling larger planes than LGA.  The only thing LGA has over JFK, other than proximity to my house, is that NYCT buses serve all terminals versus just Terminal 4 at JFK (it never used to be that way, all buses served all terminals before Airtrain).  And they can’t even get out of their own way sometimes, they are often overtaken by NYC taxicabs and livery cabs.  Never mind their high flat-rate fares, but they are like ants or cockroaches, they are everywhere and going nowhere fast.

One other reason could be because the Governor has been able to pass budgets with a number of sweeping cuts, additions, and changes to the way New York does business.  The MTA buys new buses built upstate, pleasing upstate constituents and their elected officials, the state banned fracking, got casinos built in many parts of the state including Queens, Westchester County, and Buffalo to pay for education and other programs, and now the Port Authority now miraculously has some money to rebuild parts of LaGuardia, including this Airtrain.  Seems to me like the Governor wants votes and/or something of a legacy to leave behind before he leaves office.

Nonetheless, the Governor is now more serious than ever about building an Airtrain to LGA.

Now, the problem is, where do we build this Airtrain?

  • Well, we can’t build it from the airport to Ditmars Blvd on the (N) since we have supposed NIMBYism in Astoria; whether it’s true or not depends on who you ask.  Even if they didn’t quite oppose the project, it would have been better to extend the subway than to bring the Airtrain to the subway, especially to a terminal with bad turnaround capability during peak hours (both (N) and (Q) trains use Ditmars during the day on weekdays).
  • Well, we can’t built it from the airport to 74th/Broadway/Roosevelt Avenue since we would have to worry about possible NIMBYism around the Jackson Heights and Elmhurst communities.  This is still the perfect option for an Airtrain route, and the Q70 ridership (I only have visual evidence and I have ridden the line at all different hours) is indicative of that.  I would run the Airtrain over the Grand Central Parkway and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to Broadway and then bring the line down Broadway to the current 74th/Roosevelt Station on the (7)(E)(F)(M)(R) lines.  The only drawback is that you wouldn’t have a way to connect to LIRR trains at Woodside, although would you want a third elevated structure to add to the two already there, and where would you put it?
  • Well, we could just build it to Citifield.  There’s open space for a Airtrain station, there’s access to a subway line…the (7), and access to LIRR trains,… on the Port Washington Branch.  That’s what the Governor wants…mainly because it’s cheaper and it can be done relatively quickly…$450 million for a train to Flushing Meadows.  Which is quite catchy…although there’s a problem:  Having to go east from the airport to catch a train or a subway going west into Manhattan.  Or, look at it this way, what person in their right mind would want to ride out halfway past the most logical stop for an Airtrain just to double-back towards the airport?  Why ride all the way out to Flushing and see the planes land and takeoff while you are still on your way there???

Well, if the Governor gets his way, at least we can say that now LaGuardia will finally have an Airtrain, to please everyone that complains about getting to LaGuardia by public transit.  And to think that all I thought would occur at LaGuardia would be an SBS “system” of sorts, including the Q70, the M60 SBS, the Bx41 SBS extension, and maybe one or two other SBS routes.  At least that’s what they said during the LGA Alternative Analysis Study a few years back.  This coming from an agency who is raising tolls again soon, threatening to cut back PATH service, and spending $3.5 Billion dollars on the world’s most expensive subway station in Lower Manhattan.  Go figure…


Stay Tuned.

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