A rendering of LaGuardia Airport featuring an AirTrain.

A rendering of LaGuardia Airport featuring an AirTrain. Credit: NY Governor’s Office

Do you remember life before the AirTrain at Kennedy Airport?

Those were the days in the 1980s when an express subway train, complete with its own catchy jingle, ran directly to Howard Beach, where shuttle buses picked up passengers and took them to their terminals. But finances and other problems led to the end of “the train to the plane,” as the song went, by 1990.

When talk of an AirTrain to JFK heated up years later, the idea of a ride from Jamaica to one of the world’s busiest airports drew criticism, concerns about cost and low ridership, and demands for a “one-seat ride,” from Manhattan, rather than a connector to the subway and Long Island Rail Road.

But nearly 14 years after opening, the JFK AirTrain is an unqualified success. Officials with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey estimate the AirTrain provides 7.5 million rides to air travelers annually, and a staggering 20 million rides when including employees who support JFK’s operation and use the AirTrain. It whooshes above the Van Wyck Expressway, providing crucial alternative transportation. No one would blame drivers inching toward the airport beneath the AirTrain for being slightly jealous of those speeding along above, even if its popularity means some passengers must stand with their luggage.

A link from Willets to LaGuardia

So why isn’t there an AirTrain to New York City’s other airport — the only major East Coast airport without a rail link? There should be. As drivers crawl along the Grand Central Parkway, there is no alternative way to and from LaGuardia Airport. The only mass transit is a city bus from Manhattan and parts of Queens. It’s inconvenient to many, and still means sitting in traffic.

So, imagine getting on the LIRR heading toward Woodside, stopping, just as riders do for a Mets game, at Willets Point. Just a few steps away, an AirTrain would take you on a seven-minute journey to the entirely new set of connected terminals at LaGuardia. Port Authority officials say you could be at the airport from midtown Manhattan in a half-hour. Or, you could take express 7 trains that could be added to handle airport crowds.

Would a one-seat ride from Manhattan, like an extension of the Astoria subway line, be a superior option if you could snap your fingers and make it so? Sure. But it’s not realistic or pragmatic given the community impact, exorbitant expense and necessary approvals. The advantage of copying the JFK model is that a 1.5-mile LaGuardia AirTrain could ride above the Grand Central Parkway and avoid crowded residential neighborhoods. It’s the best possible rail option.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo started the push for an AirTrain nearly three years ago, and this year hired engineering firm Parsons Brickerhoff Inc. to handle planning. The Port Authority pledged $20 million in initial engineering and design costs. This month, the authority added $55 million for more planning and engineering. That had some observers wondering how much money would go into the AirTrain hole even before a shovel hits the ground.

That’s a valid concern, but the LaGuardia AirTrain should become a reality, and the right planning can make it happen. Port Authority officials expect to finish this phase in the first half of 2018 and to make findings public.

Challenges ahead

A key to the project is figuring out the exact route, and the best connection site at Willets Point for LIRR and subway passengers. AirTrain planners also face the challenge of building on difficult terrain, since much of the ground at and around LaGuardia is landfill.

Then there’s Willets Point itself, which, other than Citi Field, is a wasteland of unsewered property, unpaved roads, vast parking lots and rundown shops. Plans to revitalize the area have long been on the drawing board. Although many of the auto body shops at Willets are being razed to prepare for development, there’s a long way to go. Port Authority officials said they’re in discussions with City Hall representatives to coordinate an AirTrain effort with whatever happens at the rest of the site. That’s important, as the AirTrain could help propel Willets Point’s development, and the two projects together could make the site a future economic centerpiece for the region.

There are plenty of unknowns about a LaGuardia AirTrain. They start with how to pay for it. Estimated at more than $1 billion, the cost could be shared by federal, state and city governments, and private partners. Then there’s the connection to subway and train lines, the need for parking, the need for accessibility. And how it all gets done with the least misery for all of us.

But we also had such questions 20 years ago about the JFK AirTrain. As they did then, city and state elected officials and transportation experts have to develop the best of the most feasible plans and convince the public it is time to move forward.

As thousands travel to and from LaGuardia at the close of Thanksgiving weekend, there’s hope that one day, they too will be able to take the train to the plane.


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