With $32.2B Budget OK’d, LGA AirTrain Is a Go Though Controversy Hangs Over Bus Terminal



Port Authority of New York & New Jersey officials today pushed through its $32.2 billion capital budget, allocating early funds for highly-scrutinized projects including an AirTrain to the new LaGuardia Airport and a replacement Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan

While approval of the 10-year spending plan has been hailed by infrastructure advocates, it has been a tension point between politicians on both sides of the Hudson River. A big source of that bad blood has been the proposed bus terminal and rail links to the area’s airports, which have been heavily debated inside and out of the bi-state agency. Those familiar with the Port Authority believe that while the capital plan gets the ball rolling on a slew of projects, construction of a new bus terminal on Manhattan’s West Side could still be years off.

“A lot of it is still a fiction even though they’ve approved it,” Nicole Gelinas, a fellow with the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute, told Commercial Observer after the meeting. “There is still a lot of uncertainty around the bus terminal.”

What seems more sure is construction of an AirTrain that would potentially run from the new $8 billion LaGuardia to the Willets Point section of Flushing, Queens. Earmarked in the Port Authority’s budget is $1 billion for early work on the elevated rail line, which the agency hopes will begin running by 2023.

Earlier this month the Port Authority issued a request for proposals for an engineer to do early stages of the project, as CO previously reported, with an undetermined final price tag. The winning firm would be responsible for planning three stations—one at Willets Point and two at LaGuardia—as well as the train’s path and figure out a financing plan for the project.

But the AirTrain to LaGuardia and a similar plan to Newark International Airport have not been unanimously loved by Port Authority commissioners. Kenneth Lipper, a New York appointee, expressed concern about approving financing for the two lines at the agency’s monthly board meeting on Jan. 5, when the agency gave the green light to the draft of the budget. (The plan was subject to a month of public input before the final vote today.) A former deputy mayor of economic development in the Koch administration, Lipper argued that it might not be the best use of Port Authority resources.

Airport improvement advocates have begged to differ. Since Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the overhaul of LaGuardia in July 2015, they have pushed for a rail link to the western Queens airport. Joseph Sitt, the founder of Thor Equities and the chairman of airport watchdog Global Gateway Alliance, submitted testimony to the Port Authority board today in which he defended the rail links to LaGuardia and Newark.

 “The critics of these two projects are wrong,” Sitt said in his testimony, which was delivered by an executive of the organization. “Neither are perfect options, but both are considerable improvements to what isn’t there now. Getting to Newark, the closest airport to Lower Manhattan, now requires a three-seat ride. And there is a no-seat train ride to LaGuardia. … Moreover, given the current chaos on the roads to LaGuardia, the AirTrain cannot come soon enough.”

The Port Authority’s decision to move forward with construction of a new bus terminal was met with some protest today as well. The approved budget allocates $3.5 billion toward early work on a new facility, which the agency voted in March 2016 to ensure would be built on Manhattan’s West Side. The total cost of the project will range from $7.5 billion to $10 billion (the remainder will be in the next 10-year capital plan, officials have maintained), according to the capital plan.

But New Yorkers have protested that decision on the grounds that building in the dense Hell’s Kitchen area will be difficult. Months of pushback from elected officials east of the Hudson River hit another tension point in recent weeks when Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio expressed frustration with the planning project. Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris (also executive director of the Port Authority from 2007 to 2008) penned a letter to the agency in which he asked executives to explore options for a new facility beyond Hell’s Kitchen. He also floated a “tiered” environmental study on the impact of the project, according to Politico, which obtained a copy of the missive.

Garden State politicians alleged that Cuomo and de Blasio—who have a less-than-friendly relationship—are working in cahoots to stymy the massive construction project, Politico reported earlier this month.   

New Jersey elected officials testified today against what they deemed to be too little attention given to the bus terminal. Delaying the bus terminal by doing a multi-step impact study was not an option when it comes to replacing for the crumbling facility—parts of which are more than 65 years old.

Gelinas said it would be difficult for the Port Authority to find a new site on which to build the terminal, and backed Cuomo’s insistence on a new study for the project, which would have to be built while the existing structure continues to operate.

“There’s no empty space to put this anywhere near the bus terminal,” she said. “Cuomo is right on looking for more of a comprehensive review. The idea that this is going to be sorted out anytime soon seems unlikely.”

Passing the budget was originally intended to come at the end of last year. But infighting within the agency—especially over the bus terminal—halted the process, pushing it into 2017. Disagreements led Port Authority Vice Chairman Steven M. Cohen, a longtime Cuomo ally, to abruptly quit the agency in November 2016, citing the inability of commissioners to reach an accord on the decade-long financing plan.

But today, construction advocates including the New York Building Congress and Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York urged the agency to pass the capital plan.

“We cannot allow perfect to be the enemy of good. This is a very good capital plan,” Gary LaBarbera, the president of the Building Trades Council, said of the sparring over the budget. “We must be bold. We must act now. Let’s get the shovels in the ground and let’s build.”