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Why the LaGuardia AirTrain may not fly

Rendering of the proposed AirTrain LGA system, a

Rendering of the proposed AirTrain LGA system, a $1.5 billion rail link between LaGuardia airport and the LIRR. Credit: THE PORT AUTHORITY OF NEW YORK

The Federal Aviation Administration posted the draft environmental impact statement for the proposed LaGuardia Airport AirTrain on Aug. 21. At the end of the day, this may be a fruitless exercise, along with a waste of money and time.

The same could be true with the 45-day public comment period on the environmental study that started on the same date and ends on Oct. 5, 2020. The FAA may not complete the process mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act by issuing an environmental finding until 2021. There is no guarantee that this project will advance beyond completion of the NEPA process.

In our new COVID-19 world, airlines, just like Amtrak, Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North Railroad and New Jersey Transit, have to reevaluate anticipated future ridership growth projections. Anticipated ridership figures for the LaGuardia AirTrain also need to be updated.

Clearly, more people will continue to telecommute from home on a permanent basis. There will be fewer face-to-face meetings and conferences, with increased usage of Zoom. The increasing crime rate in New York City could make working, shopping, dining, visiting or living in Manhattan less desirable. Some Manhattan-based corporations already are considering relocating employees to satellite offices in the surrounding suburbs. Fewer tourists would fly into the Big Apple. The same is true for those from out of town needing to conduct business in New York City.

Rick Cotton, the executive director of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, has asked Congress for a $3 billion bailout to make up for revenue losses. These additional federal dollars would allow him to move forward with his capital construction plan, including the LaGuardia AirTrain. Since the U.S. Senate adjourned until September, a second round of COVID-19 transportation funding is not in the cards any time soon.

In 2014, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said the cost for the LaGuardia AirTrain was $450 million with a completion date of 2019. The Port Authority has budgeted $2 billion of funding within the $37 billion 10-year capital plan for the AirTrain. This doesn’t include several hundred million more necessary to relocate the NYC Transit Flushing Casey Stengel Bus Depot. There is no funding within the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s $51 billion 2020-2024 plan to pay for that. No one can predict the full project’s final cost and completion date. The Port Authority’s state-of-good-repair, safety and security projects clearly should be higher priority than any system expansion project such as the LaGuardia AirTrain. It might make more sense to postpone the LaGuardia AirTrain to the next 2027-2038 Port Authority Capital Plan.

Larry Penner is a transportation advocate, historian and writer who previously worked 31 years for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office.

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