Rendering of future AirTrain LaGuardia
|Owner||Port Authority of New York and New Jersey|
|Locale||Queens, New York City|
|Operator(s)||Port Authority of New York and New Jersey|
|Line length||1.5 mi (2.4 km)|
AirTrain LaGuardia is a proposed 1.5-mile-long (2.4 km) people mover system and elevated railway in New York City, United States, that would provide service to LaGuardia Airport in Queens. It would connect with the New York City Subway and Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) in Willets Point, similar to how the existing AirTrain JFK system connects with the subway and LIRR in southern Queens.
The system will be constructed and operated under contract to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the operator of the airport, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). Construction is expected to begin in 2021, and opening is projected by 2024. Many transit advocates and many residents of nearby communities support the project, as it would improve direct access to the airport by subway and LIRR, alleviate traffic congestion, and alleviate air pollution in and around East Elmhurst. And unlike other proposed AirTrain routes to the airport, the Willets Point route is located on city-owned land and would not require eminent domain of private property and neighborhoods in East Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, Woodside, or Astoria. However, the construction of the AirTrain has been opposed by some residents of nearby communities who are concerned how it could impact their view of Flushing Bay, as well as some transit advocates who have objected to its indirect route to Midtown Manhattan.
LaGuardia Airport had no rail service when the AirTrain was proposed in 2014. The only public transportation is by bus via the Q47, Q48, Q70 SBS, Q72 and M60 SBS routes, all of which connect to the subway. The Q70 also connects to the LIRR at Woodside station, while the M60 SBS runs to Manhattan, connecting with the Metro-North Railroad at Harlem–125th Street station as well as with several subway routes. In 2014, 8% of LaGuardia's 27 million passengers took the bus, compared to the 12% of the 53 million passengers using John F. Kennedy International Airport who took AirTrain JFK. Similarly, in 2008, 75% of LaGuardia's passengers took a taxi or car service, but only 16% rode a bus or van.
The New York metropolitan area's other two major airports have rail connections. AirTrain Newark, the monorail at Newark Liberty International Airport, has connected that airport to commuter trains since 1996. AirTrain JFK, the people mover at JFK Airport, opened in 2003. AirTrain LaGuardia is proposed to be a people mover like the one at JFK.
As currently planned, the AirTrain LaGuardia would run from LaGuardia Airport with two stops within the airport, before running over the Grand Central Parkway for 1.5 miles (2.4 km) before terminating in Willets Point near Citi Field and Flushing Meadows–Corona Park, and would connect there with the New York City Subway's 7 and <7> trains at the Mets–Willets Point station and, via an existing passenger bridge, with the Long Island Rail Road's Mets–Willets Point station. The AirTrain trip would take 6 minutes, while the LIRR ride to Manhattan would take 20 minutes.
The Mets-Willets Point subway stop would be rebuilt, and $50 million has been allocated toward planning and designing this work in the 2015–2019 MTA Capital Program. Also as part of that Capital Program, the LIRR stop would be rebuilt for $75 million. The subway station and the LIRR station would be integrated with nearby buses as part of the overhaul for greater intermodal connectivity.:4, 8, 37, 56, 118, 140 The station could also possibly hold ancillary airport functions, employee parking, and a Consolidated Rent-a-Car facility.:30–31 To allow for the AirTrain station in Willets Point to be built, the Casey Stengel Bus Depot will need to be relocated. $50 million was allocated in the 2015–2019 MTA Capital Program to acquire property for a replacement depot.:6, 37, 45
A rail link to LaGuardia Airport had been proposed since 1943, when the city Board of Transportation proposed an extension of the New York City Subway's BMT Astoria Line (currently served by the N and W trains) from its terminus at Ditmars Boulevard. This would be one of 20 proposals for direct links to New York-area airports that would all be canceled.
In 1990, the MTA proposed the New York City airport rail link to LaGuardia and JFK airports, which would be funded jointly by agencies in the federal, state, and city government. The rail line was to begin in Midtown Manhattan, crossing the East River via the Queensboro Bridge's lower-level outer roadways, which had been formerly used by trolley cars. It would stop at Queens Plaza, then use the right-of-way of the Sunnyside Yards and Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to access LaGuardia Airport. After stopping at LaGuardia, the line would continue parallel to the Grand Central Parkway an intermediate stop near Shea Stadium in Willets Point, with a connection to the 7 and <7> trains at Willets Point Boulevard. Continuing down the parkway, the line would have another intermediate stop in Jamaica, connecting to the LIRR at Jamaica Station, and then proceed nonstop down the Van Wyck Expressway to JFK Airport. The Port Authority seriously considered the proposal, commissioning an environmental impact statement for the rail link. However, due to rising costs, the Port Authority canceled the direct rail link between LaGuardia/JFK and Manhattan in May 1995.
Prior to the construction of AirTrain JFK in 1997, Mayor Rudy Giuliani opposed the AirTrain at JFK because of a monetary dispute between the state, city, and Port Authority. Giuliani wanted the Port Authority to study the possibility of extending the BMT Astoria Line to LaGuardia Airport, among other things. Later that year, Giuliani agreed to the AirTrain JFK plan, and the Port Authority agreed to conduct a feasibility study on a similar LaGuardia rail link. In 2003, $645 million was budgeted to extend the Astoria Line to the airport, but the extension was never built due to community opposition in Queens.
On January 20, 2015, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a plan to build a people mover similar to AirTrain JFK. It would follow the Grand Central Parkway for one and a half miles, similar to how the AirTrain JFK runs along the median of the Van Wyck Expressway between Jamaica and JFK. The line would terminate in Willets Point near Citi Field and Flushing Meadows–Corona Park, and would connect there with the New York City Subway's 7 and <7> trains at the Mets–Willets Point station and, via an existing passenger bridge, with the Long Island Rail Road's Mets–Willets Point station on the Port Washington Branch. The governor's office estimated the cost for the project to be $450 million, which later increased to $1.5 billion.
The first contracts for the AirTrain itself were awarded in May 2016. A pair of contracts, totaling $7.5 million, were awarded for preliminary engineering work at the two Willets Point stations and expected to be completed in 2017. One contract, costing $4.6 million and awarded to STV Inc, was for studies of the LIRR station's platform lengthening and an ADA-accessibility retrofit. The other, a $2.9 million contract given to HDR Architecture and Engineering PC, was for studies regarding the subway station's complete renovation and ADA-accessibility. The airport renovation as a whole started construction on June 14, 2016. $1.5 billion was allocated for the construction of the rail link as part of the introduced 10-year $29.5 billion plan for the Port Authority. New York Commissioner Kenneth Lipper tried to have the plan amended with all funding for the AirTrain removed, citing concerns that the project would leave the agency in financial difficulty.
In January 2017, the PANYNJ released its 10-year capital plan that included AirTrain LaGuardia funding. Construction is projected to start in 2019, with passenger service in 2023.:35 On February 6, 2017, the PANYNJ announced that it had opened a four-week-long request for proposals. The firm that is awarded the RFP would design three AirTrain stations—two inside the airport's new terminals and one at Willets Point—as well as plan the right of way from Willets Point to the airport. In May 2017, WSP USA was hired to design the AirTrain. The PANYNJ awarded another $55 million to the project in November 2017, bringing the total funds allocated for planning to $75 million. In April 2018, the Port Authority ruled out the possibility of routing the AirTrain along Grand Central Parkway, after consultation with residents of nearby East Elmhurst who opposed such a routing. The other options for routing the AirTrain included either placing it on a promenade adjacent to Flushing Bay, or over the bay itself.
In June 2018, the New York State Legislature approved a law for the AirTrain LaGuardia project. This allowed the PANYNJ to start acquiring public land for the AirTrain's route, as well as for environmental impact studies to be conducted. Under the original plan, the AirTrain would start construction in 2020 and be complete by 2022. The Port Authority subsequently began environmental studies for three possible routings of the AirTrain, as well as the no-build alternative. Some residents and environmental groups opposed the project, and so they requested results from the environmental study upon its completion. Environmental groups worried that the AirTrain's construction would pollute Flushing Bay, which had just been cleaned at that point. A subsequent proposal to route the AirTrain over the waterfront was also met with opposition. Cuomo announced in May 2019 that the MTA would partially pay for the AirTrain's construction. By late 2019, the Port Authority was planning to award contracts for the AirTrain in 2021, with the line opening in 2024. The Federal Aviation Administration released a draft environmental impact statement and opened public comments for the project in August 2020.
The proposal has been strongly criticized by transit advocates as being slower than existing transit modes and likely to increase loads on the 7 and <7> trains, which already operate at full capacity. This would be alleviated somewhat by the automation of trains on the IRT Flushing Line, which would allow more 7 and <7> trains to run every hour. However, the proposed AirTrain transfer at Willets Point would still be 20 stations away from the 34th Street–Hudson Yards station, the western terminus of the 7 and <7> trains (10 stations away via the rush-hour peak-direction express). It was estimated that transferring from the subway to the AirTrain would take longer than transferring from the subway to the Q70 LaGuardia Link bus at 61st Street–Woodside, which is eight local stops closer to Manhattan than the Willets Point station is. The AirTrain would not be of use to many LIRR riders as well, since the Port Washington Branch is the only LIRR route that does not go through Jamaica station, so riders from the rest of Long Island would have to make a transfer at the LIRR's Woodside station to access the Port Washington Branch.
According to one critic, even with a capacity increase, the new route might not be worth the trip due to its distance from most of the rest of the city, as "transit travel times from LaGuardia to destinations throughout New York City—from Grand Central in Midtown Manhattan to Borough Hall in downtown Brooklyn to Jamaica in central Queens to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx—would be longer for passengers using the AirTrain than for passengers using existing transit services already offered by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority." A writer from Slate called the project itself "dumb," saying that the project was a pet project for Cuomo and an "egregious misuse of money and initiative, in a city whose everyday transit functions are at capacity, to extend such a gift to airport travelers, of all people." The Village Voice called the project an "unmitigated disaster" for its convoluted, unwieldy route, and asked, "Why would [Cuomo] build [the AirTrain's] terminal at Willets Point, which is even further from the city than the airport itself?" One alternative suggestion involved the previously rejected proposal to extend the Astoria Line to LaGuardia Airport rather than building the AirTrain to Willets Point.
In January 2020, U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents Jackson Heights and East Elmhurst, wrote to the FAA asking why 46 alternatives were rejected and noting that over 60% of the 414 public comments collected by the FAA were in opposition to the proposed routing. Hiram Monserrate, the area's Democratic District Leader, also objected that the FAA's approval had bypassed a Uniform Land Use Review Procedure analysis, as would have been mandated for other large projects. The same month, residents and business owners along the AirTrain's proposed route protested against the construction of the AirTrain on that route.
Some critics supported the proposal. In 2017, the Newsday editorial board wrote a piece in support of the AirTrain LaGuardia project, saying that it would increase mass transit patronage to the airport. The board cited AirTrain JFK as an example, saying that "officials with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey estimate the AirTrain provides 7.5 million rides to air travelers annually", and arguing that LaGuardia Airport needed a similar mass-transit airport link. Rick Cotton, executive of the Port Authority, said in an opinion article in the New York Daily News: "Let's stop talking about the red herring of 'doubling back' and focus on choosing the best route based on real issues, including the impact on neighborhoods, disruptions to highways, rail and utilities, and passenger experience, as well as cost."