The FAA hosted three public hearings and two public workshops one month after it released its Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the $2 billion project.
The report, which examined 47 possible alternatives, found that the AirTrain between Willets Point and the airport was the only option that addressed “unpredictable and increasing travel times” to and from LaGuardia, traffic congestion on roadways and inadequate employee parking.
The process is now in the midst of a 45-day public comment period, ending on October 5.
Last Monday, Port Authority executive director Rick Cotton said in a virtual event with the Association for a Better New York (ABNY) that the FAA agreed with their assessment that the proposed route is the best option.
“The FAA conducted its own thorough and independent investigation to come to that conclusion,” he said.
Despite fiscal challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, including a projected $3 billion revenue shortfall over a 24-month period that has caused the Port Authority to reexamine its capital plan, Cotton assured that the AirTrain project remains on track.
“We are committed to finishing,” he said. “We are not going to leave these two airport projects unfinished, and that includes the two AirTrain projects.”
Cotton made the case for the benefits of a rail link to LaGuardia, including providing reliable mass transit access to the airport, curbing air pollution and lessening congestion on local roadways.
He noted that bus lines that currently take travelers to the airport are used by “well under 10 percent” of the public.
“It is that kind of experience that will get people out of their cars,” he said, referring to the AirTrain. “You can rely on it.”
He also touted the 3,000 union construction jobs it would create, and hundreds of millions of dollars for local and MWBE businesses. He noted that as part of the project, the Port Authority will improve the Flushing Bay promenade and leave it “in far better shape.”
“At a time when the economy is in a ditch,” Cotton added, “this project can contribute substantially to a more vigorous recovery.”
On Tuesday morning, A Better Way to LGA, a coalition of business, labor and industry groups, gathered at the Flushing Bay promenade to urge supporters to testify at the upcoming public hearings.
Tom Grech, president and CEO of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, reiterated that the project would yield not only union construction jobs, but also ongoing opportunities for the maintenance of the AirTrain.
He said the AirTrain for JFK Airport, which opened 16 years ago, also faced initial resistance, but “has exceeded all expectations.” Last year, that AirTrain served a total of nearly 21 million riders.
Grech also announced that all five chambers of commerce in New York City support the LaGuardia AirTrain.
“Tourism, conventions and business are the backbone of our city’s economy,” the chamber heads wrote in an open letter. “AirTrain will improve and speed up the connections those visitors make in getting from LaGuardia to their destinations.
“After all, we only get one chance to make a great first impression,” they added. “Why should we squander that opportunity by forcing travelers to endure long, unreliable rides to the airport in traffic?”
Grech added that the Port Authority has committed to investing $16.5 million to rehabilitate the 1.4-mile promenade, including $8 million for pathway enhancements, improved landscaping and refurbishment of the railing and walkway.
Another $8 million would be for community park improvements, and the remaining $500,000 will be for bulkhead and seawall repairs.
“This place could be a gem,” he said of thepromenade, “and it is not today.”
Carlo Scissura, president and CEO of the New York Building Congress, called the AirTrain project a “no-brainer,” especially considering the fiscal challenges afflicting the city and state.
“The way you get America out of a rough time has always been simple,” he said. “It’s three words: build, build, build.”
Laura Colacurcio, vice president of ABNY, argued that the travel experience at LaGuardia will be more convenient when the AirTrain is built.
“Anyone who has flown in and out of LaGuardia knows that the worst part of the entire journey is often the trip to and from the airport,” she said. “We hope that taking a taxi or car service to LaGuardia will be an outdated practice for most travelers in just a matter of years.”
During the public hearings, dozens of business groups, unions and other proponents testified in favor of the project. But many residents, environmental advocates and local activists also spoke out against it.
Thomas Huzji called the FAA’s environmental impact statement “illegitimate” because it did not properly analyze the alternatives that the community proposed, including a dedicated busway from either Woodside or Jackson Heights.
Huzji said the screening guidelines that the federal agency used were “arbitrary and unfairly designed.”
“The idea that the bus lane would not create a time-sensitive solution was clearly wrong,” he said. “The bus lane, if dedicated, would create a pathway for the bus to reach the airport and the terminals without dealing with congestion.”
Richard Mullings, a 25-year resident of East Elmhurst, noted that the majority of comments submitted by the public in an earlier round of public input opposed the project. He said the FAA “ignored” a request for the extension of the N train line.
He also said that despite the JFK AirTrain being built, there is still traffic on the Van Wyck Expressway.
“There’s no proof this project will be effective,” Mullings said.
Michael Dulong, senior staff attorney with the environmental group Riverkeeper, called the FAA’s alternatives analysis “biased for a certain conclusion from the start.” He argued that the analysis would not pass legal muster.
“The criteria are so unreasonable, they do not pass the smell test,” Dulong said. “We begged you to get this analysis right, and you did not.”
Warren Schreiber, a civic leader in northeast Queens and chair of the New York Community Aviation Roundtable, did not say whether he supported or opposed the project. But he raised concerns that when construction starts up again, including large-scale development in downtown Flushing, everyone will be using public transit.
“The 7 line when it was running normally was at full capacity,” he said. “There was no more room on the 7 line.”
Schreiber noted that the MTA has already proposed cutting service due to budget shortfalls.
“I am concerned about the capacity on the LIRR and the 7 line,” he added, “and how it will impact everyday travelers going back and forth.”
Members of the Guardians of Flushing Bay, a coalition of boaters, residents and environmentalists, also blasted the project, particularly what they consider insufficient investment in the promenade.
“It’s insulting to users to endure an AirTrain for what is essentially crumbs,” said Rebecca Pryor, the group’s program coordinator.
Margaret Flanagan, a member of GoFB, said the park needs more restrooms and water access points.
“These require more investments than what we’re seeing right now,” Flanagan said. “There should be a 30-year investment to provide maintenance in our communities.”