A $2 billion plan to build an elevated train link connecting New York City with LaGuardia Airport through an intermediate stop is the best alternative to improve traffic delays, federal regulators said in a preliminary environmental impact statement released Friday.
Depending on final environmental approval, construction could begin as soon as next summer and be completed by late 2025, the Federal Aviation Administration wrote Friday. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has already approved funding for the project, which has generated opposition from neighborhood groups in Queens and from Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents part of the area the link is slated to pass through.
Even if approvals are granted, it's unknown whether the project will be delayed by funding issues stemming from huge revenue losses suffered this year by the Port Authority due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The AirTrain project is part of the ongoing $8 billion renovation of LaGuardia Airport, which has been delayed at least one or two years by the pandemic as private sector cash has dried up.
City and transit officials have sought for decades to connect Manhattan and LaGuardia, considered one of the few major airports in the U.S. without a rail link. The Port Authority plan, supported by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, would build an elevated track to connect the airport with the 7-line subway and LIRR train stop that serve CitiField, home of the New York Mets, and the U.S. National Tennis Center, site of the U.S. Open.
The FAA report said it considered dozens of other proposed alternatives including ferry service, improved bus service and the extension of subway service to the airport, and concluded the Port Authority plan was the only one "considered to be reasonable to construct and operate."
"We are one step closer to realizing the benefits of the project for the region," Port Authority Chairman Kevin O'Toole said in a statement. "AirTrain LGA will provide millions upon millions of air travelers with a reliable, 30-minute trip from midtown Manhattan to the airport."
Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton noted in a separate statement that the rail link's initial proposed path was shifted to the north, further away from a neighborhood that sits across the Grand Central Parkway from the airport. The plan wouldn't require the taking of any private property, Cotton said.
Cotton told NBC New York that federal funding is still an open question, and dismissed critics and transit advocates who pushed for an extension of the subway to the airport instead of the AirTrain.
"With all due respect, that is a nonsensical argument," Cotton said. "It will be six minutes to the airport — less than 30 minutes to the city is a huge mass transit plus."
Some of the impacts to the neighborhood could be significant, however. The FAA report concluded the neighborhood would "disproportionally experience high and adverse noise and vibration impacts" during construction and significant light emissions once the link is in operation. In addition, 93 residential units bordering the Parkway would have obstructed views of Flushing Bay.
Critics have said the Port Authority's travel time estimates are too optimistic and that the price tag for the 1.5-mile link is too high for the number of people the link is anticipated to serve. A Port Authority study projected ridership at 17,000 people per day in 2026 and slightly over 18,000 by 2031; the FAA estimates 13,000 people by 2026 and 14,000 by 2031.
In a letter to FAA officials in January, Ocasio-Cortez said that public comments last fall were overwhelmingly against the Port Authority's proposed route. She also asked the FAA to clarify why options including ferry service, dedicated bus lanes and an extension of the N/W subway line were eliminated as options. A message was left Friday with Ocasio-Cortez's office seeking comment.
The public has until early October to review Friday's report, and public hearings will be held in late September.
Meanwhile, in other mass transit projects in the city, Moynihan Train Hall across from Penn Station is still set to open this year. Amtrak however has hit delays, and their ticket windows will not be open at the location.
Overall, the MTA is looking at possible huge layoffs and service cuts if a federal bailout doesn't come through. The agency said it's going to start charging bus passengers once again after losing more than $100 million in recent months. On Friday, they also announced the free taxi service they've provided when the subways shut down at 1 a.m. will come to an end as well.
"The fact is we do not operate a free system, as much as we may want to," said New York City Transit President Sarah Feinberg. "We can't afford to lose revenues at this moment."