In a city with endless stalled infrastructure needs, one project has quietly been making headway: an AirTrain from Manhattan to LaGuardia Airport.
Under a proposal first floated by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2015, the Port Authority would build a 1.5-mile elevated-line connection over the Grand Central Parkway, connecting the LaGuardia terminals to the Mets-Willets Point Station on the Long Island Rail Road and the 7 Train.
The Port Authority will fund the project — plus other capital improvements — out of a new $4 surcharge on taxi and Uber rides as well as fare hikes on the JFK and Newark AirTrains and higher bridge tolls.
The governor continues to shepherd the proposal, so far meeting with little opposition — not surprising, given his command of Albany politics.
The project may seem welcome to anyone who has had to drive through LaGuardia’s hellish peak-hour traffic, and it will help Cuomo at least make a show of having improved an airport long criticized for its “Third World” conditions, including in 2014 by then-Vice President Joe Biden.
In its present state, however, the AirTrain project deserves no support.
For starters, the AirTrain’s cost is exorbitant. The Port Authority, no stranger to massive construction-cost blowouts, estimates the project at $2.05 billion, or about $1.3 billion per mile. This amount could fund a fully underground subway in almost any global city besides New York — and then some.
For about half this price per mile, Los Angeles is digging a new subway through tar pits filled with prehistoric fossils. (When Cuomo initially proposed the LaGuardia AirTrain, by the way, the price tag was $450 million.)
If one-seventh of La Guardia’s 30 million yearly passengers used the AirTrain — a portion higher than any other airport rail connection in the United States — then the project would cost about $170,000 per daily rider, several times what most European countries would consider acceptable for new public transit projects.
By comparison, the Second Avenue Subway cost $4.5 billion and served 21.7 million riders in 2017 — or about $75,000 per daily rider.
The AirTrain’s real ridership will probably be far lower than this generous estimate, because the project is very poorly designed. A LaGuardia AirTrain would most logically run from the airport toward Midtown Manhattan. But to avoid irritating Astoria residents, who blocked a Giuliani-era proposal to extend the N Train to LaGuardia, Cuomo chose a route from the airport to the east.
To get to Manhattan, travelers would then have to backtrack on the 7 Train or the LIRR’s Port Washington branch. Neither option is appealing. The 7 Train has no express service except during rush hours and is already overcrowded: Its Queens terminus, Flushing-Main Street, is the busiest subway station outside Manhattan.
The LIRR, meanwhile, is expensive and inconvenient for traveling anywhere but Midtown West, and it runs trains on the Port Washington branch only once every half-hour.
According to an analysis by the urban planner Yonah Freemark, once average wait times for the LIRR are taken into account, the AirTrain would be slower than the existing MTA buses for travel to most destinations in Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn.
Instead of building an expensive, underused AirTrain, the city’s public authorities could make LaGuardia travel far more convenient by simply improving the bus service.
One of the biggest deterrents from taking the bus to LaGuardia is the unreliable travel time: I have almost missed an early-afternoon flight because my bus spent 40 minutes caught in traffic on airport grounds.
Though the roads through LaGuardia have dedicated bus lanes, they are frequently blocked by private cars dropping off or waiting for passengers or closed altogether for road construction, forcing buses into slow general traffic. The cost of better bus-lane enforcement would be a rounding error compared to a new AirTrain, and it may even pay for itself in increased bus ridership.
Better buses aren’t as fancy as a new train, but they would do far more good — and leave more of New Yorkers’ money in their pockets.
Connor Harris is a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute.
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