FAA Greenlights Controversial LaGuardia AirTrain

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The Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday approved Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to build an AirTrain to LaGuardia Airport, a project that has attracted the ire of transit advocates and community groups.

The $2.1 billion elevated rail link will connect the Willets Point stop on the 7 train and the Long Island Rail Road to LaGuardia, which is currently being redeveloped at a cost of $8 billion. State officials have said that the AirTrain will mean a 30-minute route to the airport from Midtown Manhattan. Transit advocates, however, have long referred to the LaGuardia AirTrain proposal as the “Backwards” or “Wrong Way” AirTrain, because they argue that the new transit option won’t improve travel times to the airport for most travelers. 

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However, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Executive Director Rick Cotton argued that some kind of train link to LaGuardia is better than none at all.

“We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the excellent,” Cotton told Commercial Observer in late 2020. “Right now, everyone who’s coming to and from LaGuardia has to be on the roadways. The AirTrain will reduce congestion for people who are on the Grand Central Parkway or other roadways who aren’t interested in the airport. And it will reduce the environmental impacts and greenhouse gases created by congested roadways.”

The FAA was slow to approve the project because of opposition from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who argued last year that the project would divert much-needed federal funding from the surrounding neighborhoods in central Queens. Neighborhood groups, meanwhile, opposed the new train because the noise and construction would disturb neighbors in East Elmhurst and negatively impact the cleanup of Flushing Bay.

“The new LaGuardia Airport — the first new airport in the United States in over 25 years and the front door to New York — deserves a reliable, efficient, and affordable transit connector worthy of its destination,” Cuomo said in a statement. “With the Federal Aviation Administration’s approval today of the LaGuardia AirTrain, that’s exactly what New Yorkers will get. This is the culmination of years of advocacy by this administration and a key moment in our efforts to rebuild New York’s infrastructure for the future.” 

State Sen. Jessica Ramos has also pushed back against the project, tweeting Tuesday afternoon that the AirTrain was “a huge slap in the face [by Cuomo] to the residents of East Elmhurst. COVID has already taken a devastating toll on our neighbors. The last thing we need is a multi-billion dollar vanity project that will further affect the health & well-being of our communities.”

With the FAA approval, preliminary construction work on the AirTrain could start before the end of the summer. It could start running by 2025.

Rebecca Baird-Remba can be reached at rbairdremba@commercialobserver.com.