Every so often, a transportation project comes up that’s so likely to be a flop, such an obvious waste of tax dollars, such a blatant example of poor planning, that its most useful legacy is as a constant reminder our crappy transportation landscape is not merely an error of the past but an ongoing debacle in which old mistakes assume new forms.
Such is the case with the LaGuardia AirTrain, which received final approval from the Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday, clearing the project to move ahead. The project is for a train that takes passengers to another train that takes them to the city, the very kind of pointless and distinctly American infrastructure the very same FAA said in January we no longer need to build.
In order to provide a rail connection to another rail connection to LaGuardia, the Port Authority will build approximately 2.3 miles of track, a few stations, and accompanying support infrastructure. This measly spur is projected to cost $2.1 billion, a 366 percent increase from the initial $450 million projected when the project was first pitched in 2015. In fact, in the last three years alone, the estimated cost has increased $600 million, more than the entire cost of the project according to the initial and extremely wrong estimates.
As a surface level analysis, the AirTrain sounds good. It is a rail link to a popular airport with abysmal traffic problems. It will connect to the subway via the 7 and the Long Island Rail Road at Willets Point.
But the flaws with this plan have been apparent since the very beginning, as transportation expert Yonah Freemark, who is now a senior researcher at the Urban Institute, detailed at the time. He called it a train that will "save almost no one any time." His analysis compared travel times on the proposed AirTrain to a number of real and theoretical alternatives, including extending the N train from Astoria, an idea that dates back to the 1990s and which, thanks to the aforementioned FAA rule change, could now use airline ticket surcharges to help cover the cost. In 2018, I provided my own analysis and focused more on comparing the AirTrain with the existing option of the Q70 express bus from Jackson Heights, which takes approximately 10 minutes and connects to the 7, E, F, M, and R trains, and the proposed LIRR route. The upshot of both of our work is the AirTrain is, depending on where a person is going to or coming from, either just as bad as existing options or even worse.
And that's considering the project simply based on travel times. It looks even worse when also factoring in the cost. Back in 2015, when the estimated cost was merely $450 million, Freemark concluded, "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." And yet here we are, six years later, and the state is going to spend more than four and a half times that on the very same project.
How did the state, through the Port Authority that runs the project, possibly justify this? By rigging the environmental impact statement with arbitrary criteria so that the AirTrain was the only possible option, according to documents unearthed through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the environmental group Riverkeeper. If you don't want to read through 1,200 pages, here is a Twitter thread with some of the most explosive findings, including the fact that the Port Authority routinely dismissed other alternatives, like a subway extension, expanded bus service with dedicated lanes, or even an AirTrain to a the Woodside LIRR station which serves more lines, for completely random reasons it made up out of thin air like the removal of street parking, a criteria which in no way, shape, or form disqualifies a major infrastructure project from being built.
In its final ruling, the FAA identified the AirTrain as a worthy project in part because "approximately 99 percent of passengers access the Airport via surface roads or streets." (Unfortunately, it does not explain how this mysterious one percent leave LaGuardia, an airport without rail access, if not via roads or streets.) The AirTrain will fix this, apparently, by building lots of off-site parking near Citi Field where people will then take the AirTrain to the airport. (As we've established, the AirTrain is unlikely to add more public transit trips since it will take even longer than existing options.) The Catch-22-esque logic here is almost too absurd to ridicule. Instead of driving to the airport, people will drive to the AirTrain, on the same road and only a mile from the airport. This completely misses the point of public transit, namely to reduce traffic and emissions, which the AirTrain will do neither of.
When it comes to missing the point of public transit, no one is more accomplished than the main booster of this project, Governor Andrew Cuomo. Which brings us to the reason this AirTrain is getting built. All of the above considerations—that it is a bad transit option, that it is expensive as hell, that we could build any number of better transit lines with this money, that it won't solve any of the main problems facing LaGuardia access—simply do not seem to matter to Cuomo. All that matters to him is that he builds things that sound and look good and reshapes New York in a way that suits him personally and politically, just as he wants to do by turning a huge swath of Midtown into the new Hudson Yards in the name of rescuing Penn Station.
Sometimes, it is not the big lies that are the most revealing, but the small ones. In celebrating the FAA ruling on the AirTrain, Cuomo's team sent out a press release that repeated a lie he has been saying for years, that LaGuardia is "the first new airport in the United States in over 25 years." It is a bizarre assertion, so meaningless in both bravado and error that it would warrant no attention if not for the fact he keeps saying it like it matters.
LaGuardia is obviously not a new airport, having first opened in 1939 on the same land it currently occupies. It is being renovated, just as dozens of airports around the country are constantly being renovated at all times. Even if LaGuardia was a new airport, it would not be the first in 25 years. The Williston Basin International Airport opened in Williston, North Dakota in 2019 and the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport in Panama City, Florida debuted in 2010.
These are not difficult facts to intuit or research—this Forbes article is the first hit when I Google "newest airports in the US"—but Cuomo's whole infrastructure philosophy is no one will care about the details as long as he builds big, shiny things. It is a cynical view of humanity, a disrespectful approach towards his constituents, and a disservice to a city over which he has tremendous influence. It is also working for him, insofar as he keeps winning elections. Whether or not we look upon projects like the AirTrain in a generation and think of Andrew Cuomo the master builder or Andrew Cuomo the boondoggler seems not to concern him. Either way, we will think of him, and to a certain type of person, that is all that matters.