A proposed $2 billion rail link between LaGuardia Airport and the Long Island Rail Road has been the subject of fierce debate between those who believe it is critical to the success of the ongoing airport redevelopment project and those who think the proposed route makes little sense.
The two sides have made their case in recent weeks as part of an ongoing public comment period in the environmental review for the Port Authority’s proposed LaGuardia AirTrain, which aims to begin construction next year. It would connect the northern Queens airport, which is in the middle of an $8 billion redevelopment, to the LIRR’s Mets-Willets Point station.
Dozens have weighed in on merits of the proposed AirTrain at a series of virtual public hearings held last week by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Of approximately 125 speakers at the three hearings, more than 70% spoke in favor of the AirTrain, according A Better Way to LGA, a coalition of business, planning and labor groups supporting the project.
Boosters praised the project’s potential to create 3,000 construction jobs, ease traffic congestion to and from the airport, and revitalize surrounding Queens communities, as the AirTrain serving John F. Kennedy International Airport did at Jamaica.
"But the AirTrain will not be limited to just the Queens economy," said Thomas Grech, president of the Queens Chamber of Commerce and co-chair of A Better Way to LGA, speaking at a hearing Wednesday. "A faster, reliable connection by Air Train to the LIRR or number 7 [subway line] will put travelers from throughout the region within a half-hour of Manhattan’s key destinations."
In an interview Tuesday, Port Authority executive director Rick Cotton said that the hearings proved that project "supporters hugely outweigh critics."
But some questioned whether the potential negative impact to neighboring communities, which would have to put up with construction for about four years, outweighed its benefits. They have also criticized the project's impracticality, saying rail passengers would have to transfer at least once to get to their destinations.
"I really think it’s a bad idea to make people go east, and then go west," said Andrew Sparberg, a former LIRR manager and transit historian who spoke against the project. "And the many people who want to go to Long Island would have to transfer again at Woodside."
Sparberg and others suggested travelers would be better served by improved bus service to and from LaGuardia, or an extension of the N subway line.
Cotton said that all other proposed alternatives to the AirTrain are rife with problems, including the complications of having to seize private property. He noted that even the FAA, in its recent draft environmental review, chose the AirTrain as its preferred option.
"If you look at every other available alternative, in the final analysis, they don’t measure up," Cotton said. "This is, by far, the best available option. And it’s a damn good one."