Environmental Groups Sue to Block LaGuardia AirTrain

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A trio of community and environmental groups filed a lawsuit on Monday to stop the $2.1 billion LaGuardia AirTrain project, arguing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) failed to fairly evaluate the environmental impact of the train

The suit calls on the court to require the FAA to prepare a new environmental impact statement and to halt work on the project in the meantime, Crain’s New York Business first reported. The plaintiffs — Riverkeeper, the Guardians of Flushing Bay and the Ditmars Boulevard Block Association — alleged that the FAA sped through the impact study, under pressure from then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

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“For various reasons, the FAA moved quickly with this,” Michael Dulong, a senior attorney at Riverkeeper, told Commercial Observer. “But there was also pressure from the governor’s office to move even faster. The governor’s office sought for a long time a one-year timeframe, along with Port Authority.”

To meet the accelerated timeline, the suit alleged the FAA created arbitrary screening criteria to eliminate 45 alternative transit ideas, like extending existing subway service, restarting ferry service to the airport or improving bus transport.

The suit further alleged that the FAA ignored alternatives to the AirTrain and issued an “unlawful approval” of the project this summer. The FAA told CO it does not comment on pending litigation.

“These deficiencies … denied the public important information about the feasibility, cost, environmental impacts, and regional transit and jobs benefits of the alternatives,” the suit read. “The public simply has no way to determine whether the AirTrain is in the best interests of the region with the least impact on local communities and the environment.”

The AirTrain, an elevated rail project, will connect the Willets Point stop on the 7 train and the Long Island Rail Road to LaGuardia, CO reported. State officials have said that the AirTrain will allow passengers to travel to the airport from Midtown Manhattan within a half hour, but transit advocates have argued it won’t improve transport times for most riders

The project was approved just two months ago on July 20, with construction expected to begin by the end of the summer and estimated to finish in 2025, CO reported. The courts could prevent that construction from starting if the FAA doesn’t opt to do so, said Dulong.

While the Port Authority — charged with the project’s financing, construction and design — supported the AirTrain, state leaders, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, opposed the plan, arguing it would divert crucial federal funding from the surrounding neighborhoods in central Queens. 

“The Biden administration’s transportation experts greenlighted the badly overdue LaGuardia AirTrain after reviewing more than 25,000 pages of studies and other materials, and analyzing more than 40 alternatives,” a spokesperson for the Port Authority said in a statement. “We are confident that the panel of federal judges who will now independently review this matter will affirm that the AirTrain is now ready to be built.”

The suit argued that the AirTrain would harm a 2,100-foot stretch of the Malcolm X Promenade, part of the verdant Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens. The lawsuit requires that the FAA release documents explaining why it decided to approve the AirTrain within 40 days, Dulong said.

An attorney at Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic, the firm representing the plaintiffs, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Celia Young can be reached at cyoung@commercialobserver.com.