Stoppable: Gov. Hochul Puts Brakes on AirTrain to LaGuardia
The LaGuardia AirTrain project is running off the rails.
Gov. Kathy Hochul on Monday pulled the emergency brakes on a $2.1 billion proposal to connect Flushing, Queens, to LaGuardia Airport, saying the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey should consider other ways of getting commuters to the airport.
“I have asked the Port Authority to thoroughly examine alternative mass transit solutions for reducing car traffic and increasing connectivity to LaGuardia Airport,” Hochul said in a statement her office sent out Monday afternoon. “We must ensure that our transportation projects are bold, visionary and serve the needs of New Yorkers.”
Port Authority leaders said they were open to making changes, even though they called a rail link to LaGuardia a “policy imperative” as recently as four days ago.
“[Gov. Hochul] asked for further conversations and of course, we will be responding to all of her questions and engaging with her to every extent that she desires,” Rick Cotton, executive director at the Port Authority, told reporters at a board meeting on Sept. 30. “We will be, as I say, discussing this in whatever detail, providing whatever review Governor Hochul desires.”
Hochul’s remarks, which could send the rail line back to the drawing board, signaled the greatest departure from her predecessor’s infrastructure-heavy agenda since her swearing-in six weeks ago.
The controversial mass transit project had been gaining steam through then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s third term and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved its environmental review for the 1.5-mile monorail in July.
Queens legislators have staunchly opposed the AirTrain citing the presence of less expensive transit options that serve larger portions of residents like express busways and subway extensions.
“The sentiment of a review is appreciated,” Queens Senator Jessica Ramos tweeted. “What my community and our coalition partners are calling for is a halt.”
Two Queens neighborhood groups joined nonprofit environmental organization Riverkeeper in a lawsuit asking the U.S. Court of Appeals to block the FAA’s recommendation. And the FAA has reportedly considered pausing the project in response, Newsday reported.
Mayor Bill de Blasio even joined the pile-on, arguing the Port Authority needed to review all options from the beginning now that Cuomo was gone.
“I think there’s a lot to be said for immediately — now that we don’t have, you know, the imperial governor anymore — to look at the different options and see which one is best,” de Blasio said Monday on NY1.
But not everybody was jumping for joy over Hochul’s derailment of the AirTrain. Joseph Geiger, the executive secretary treasurer of union the New York City District Council of Carpenters, said in a statement that the AirTrain project would “generate 3,000 construction jobs and create $500 million in contracting opportunities” and wanted to make sure any alternatives created “similar, if not better, benefits.”
However, Hochul’s opposition to the project could be good politics with a crowded Democratic primary looming next summer and so many Queens elected officials lobbying against the plan.
“She’s probably punting every decision after [next] June anyway,” one Democratic political consultant, who didn’t want to be quoted for fear of losing business, said. “Everyone in this part of town is opposed to it anyway so why would she be in favor of it?”
What happens next is less clear. The Port Authority could scrap the plan entirely with or without a vote of its board members and call for new proposals. And if Port Authority board members still want to plow ahead with the AirTrain, Hochul could move to replace Cuomo-appointed board members, something she has not done at the transportation authority despite making personnel changes elsewhere in her administration.
But Hochul’s call for a review of transit options around LaGuardia has advocates welcoming a rare second chance at transforming bus and rail service throughout the outer boroughs.
“There’s no urgency to spend many billions of dollars in Queens when there are worthy capital projects all across the city,” said Danny Pearlstein, policy and communications director at Riders Alliance, a transit advocacy group. “There are so many novel rail projects in Queens it would seem a real shame to sink real capital into something that almost nobody wants.”
Update: This story has been updated to include a comment from the New York City District Council of Carpenters.