LaGuardia's AirTrain was derailed by small thinking
Talk of a rail link to LaGuardia Airport dates back 80 years.
In the 1940s, such chatter involved extending the subway from Astoria. Later came the notion of connecting Manhattan to both LaGuardia and Kennedy airports, using rights of way on the Grand Central Parkway and Van Wyck Expressway. After Kennedy's AirTrain opened, talk focused on extending it to LaGuardia. Most recently, planners settled on building an AirTrain from Willets Point, which would have connected to both the subway and the Long Island Rail Road.
That latest proposal went further than others, leading to studies and workshops, and even Federal Aviation Administration environmental reviews.
Meanwhile, a new LaGuardia Airport was rising. The newly-completed terminals, concourses, gate areas, shops and more have provided travelers with a superior experience.
All they needed was a modern transit system to get them there.
Alas, earlier this month, like the many plans before it, the dream of a LaGuardia AirTrain died. A panel of experts deemed it too expensive and determined that the one-seat-ride subway option wasn't viable, either. So, Gov. Kathy Hochul and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey ditched the train-to-the-plane idea altogether.
Thinking — and acting — big stopped at the new, sliding airport doors.
This particular project wasn't perfectly suited to this particular moment. The cost of the AirTrain exploded from $450 million in 2015 to a prohibitive $2.4 billion. And the subway extensions directly to LaGuardia had become non-starters, due to community opposition and costly complications like having to dig a subway tunnel underground to get to the airport.
But there was more to the decision than cost and complexity. After the resignation of former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who pushed this project forward, the naysayers wielded a louder collective voice than the supporters, leaving little room for the political will and imagination necessary to find a viable rail option and see it to fruition.
Now, travelers hoping to avoid cars or taxis will be forced to take a city bus — either the Q70 from Roosevelt Avenue or Woodside, or a newly proposed shuttle from Astoria. Those options are unlikely to entice Long Islanders or New York City residents. If the goal — as it should be — is to get more people out of their cars, this isn't likely to move the needle much.
Elected leaders willing to think big, especially on worthwhile priorities like public transit, don't just throw away big ideas. They find answers to questions and solutions to problems, and keep looking for ways to achieve the goal.
Proposals for Penn Station, the Second Avenue Subway or Grand Central Madison show what's possible when dreams are pursued. Such big thinking should still matter. The alternative is letting grand ideas die, leaving us to imagine what could have been.
Kennedy Airport has a successful AirTrain, Newark is getting a new one. Even at Long Island MacArthur, developers hope to better connect the airport and the LIRR. But newly-rebuilt LaGuardia, home to what was recently named the world's best new terminal, sadly won't have the mass transit to match.
Inside, the airport will serve as a testament to big dreams and plans and the will to make them happen, even when it's hard. Outside, as travelers sit in Grand Central traffic wondering if they'll make their flight, or wait on line for cabs and buses, small thinking won the day.
Columnist Randi F. Marshall's opinions are her own.