The head of the Port Authority rallied support Friday on Long Island for a planned $1.5 billion rail link between LaGuardia Airport and the Long Island Rail Road.
Speaking at a Melville meeting of the Long Island Association, a business and planning group, Port Authority executive director Rick Cotton provided new details of the agency's proposed LaGuardia AirTrain, which would connect the Queens airport to the LIRR's Mets-Willets Point Station via a new 1.5-mile shuttle train corridor.
Cotton said the Port Authority projects between 6 million and 10 million people would use the AirTrain annually, and he promised that the link to the LIRR would be "seamless," with glass-enclosed elevators and special features to accommodate travelers with luggage, special needs or young children.
Cotton said the project is in its early environmental review stages but hopes to break ground by 2020. He said the effort would keep pace with a parallel project to rebuild the airport, which he noted was the only major airport in the northeast without a direct rail connection.
"Forcing passengers onto roads is a terrible, terrible public policy decision," said Cotton, who added that AirTrain would provide a "reliable and predictable" transportation alternative for travelers.
"It would be irresponsible and indefensible as a matter of public policy not to build an AirTrain as fast as you can," he said.
The project has faced some skepticism since it was proposed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in 2015. Critics have said the indirect route design is far from ideal, with passengers having to travel east from LaGuardia to Flushing, only to double back to go to Manhattan. They've also questioned the project officials' estimated 30-minute travel time between LaGuardia and Penn Station.
But Cotton, in an interview after his public remarks, called the criticism "misplaced" and "ridiculous," because, as indirect as it may be, the potential rail route between the airport and midtown Manhattan would be "the fastest way to get there."
"You can't travel the way the crow flies," Cotton said. "If you could, it would be faster. But you can't."
Cotton told business and political leaders in attendance that he was seeking their support for the project, via the public comment period in the ongoing environmental review. Kevin Law, president of the Long Island Association, which hosted Cotton on Friday, said he was sold on the project's benefits.
"I absolutely believe it's critical, because our population, while not growing as much as it used to, it is growing," Law said. "We can't be putting more cars on the streets."