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Federal Government Delays Decision on LaGuardia AirTrain Over Community Concerns

AirTrain LGA model (A New LGA)

June 21, 2021 By Allie Griffin

Federal officials have postponed making their final decision on the $2 billion LaGuardia AirTrain project after community groups and legislators expressed concerns over its environmental review.

Early construction of the AirTrain — a proposed 1.5 mile rail line linking LaGuardia Airport to the 7 train and Long Island Rail Road at Willets Point — was expected to begin in June, but the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has yet to approve the work.

The agency aims to address community concerns before it decides to approve or deny the AirTrain project — an undertaking of the the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ).

“We are working to answer additional questions from members of the New York [congressional] delegation and other community groups,” a FAA spokesperson said. “The FAA expects to issue a decision soon.”

The concerns were raised after private communications between the FAA and the Port Authority were made public. The correspondence reveals that the FAA had questioned whether the Port Authority’s environmental review was completely impartial and thorough.

“In general, screening criteria are not uniformly applied to the alternatives,” the FAA stated, referring to other transportation ideas and concepts put forward to get people to the airport. “…Issues are made to be insurmountable for certain alternatives, yet the same issues for the preferred alternative seem to be glossed over.”

The Port Authority said the AirTrain — first proposed by Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2015 — was the only project of the 47 ideas studied in the environmental review that checked off all their boxes. The agency said the rail line would make travel time between LaGuardia and Manhattan a reliable 30-minute commute.

The environmental advocacy group Riverkeeper obtained the communications between the two agencies via a Freedom of Information request and made them public in April.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez then sent a letter to the FAA on May 26 asking the agency to hold off on approving the AirTrain project due to the revelations.

“Due to the lack of transparency surrounding the FAA’s Final EIS and the lack of the public’s trust in the execution of this project, I ask that the FAA refrain from approving this project, thereby preventing PANYNJ from beginning construction,” Ocasio-Cortez said in the letter.

Proposed AirTrain route

Critics of the project say its route is illogical — making riders from Manhattan travel past the airport to Willets Point to then backtrack to the airport. They also are concerned about the environmental impact it will have on the nearby Flushing Bay, as well as overcrowding on the 7 train line.

It’s unclear how much the setback will affect the project timeline as only early construction, such as utility work, was expected to begin this month. The majority of the construction work is not slated to begin until April 2022.

“We thank and commend the FAA for conducting an exhaustive and independent environmental review that benefited from extensive input and engagement and support from the public and the local community during the two-year long EIS process,” a spokesperson for the Port Authority said. “We look forward to the conclusion of the review.”

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Larry Penner

Something is still missing from the Federal Aviation Administration Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the proposed LaGuardia Air Train. Neither Governor Cuomo, Port Authority Chairman Cotton, MTA Chairman Foye, LIRR President Eng and NYC Transit Interim President Feinberg has ever revealed what the additional operating and capital costs would be to provide supporting LIRR & NYC Transit service. No one has identified the funding sources to pay for increasing frequency of service.

In our new COVID-19 world, anticipated ridership figures for the LaGuardia Air Train should have been updated.

Only Governor Cuomo, the Port Authority, their consultants along with labor unions and construction contractors who would benefit by this project, refuse to acknowledge the reality that a thirty minute trip is fantasy.
In 2014, Cuomo said the cost for the LaGuardia Air Train was $450 million with a completion date of 2019. The Port Authority budgeted $2.05 billion of funding within the $37 billion 2017 – 2026 Ten Year Capital Plan for the project with a completion date of 2025. Who will pay for the additional costs if the construction bids come in above the available funding? Who can guarantee the final cost and completion date?.
(Larry Penner is a transportation advocate, historian and writer who previously worked for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions in capital projects and programs for the MTA, NYC Transit, LIRR along with 30 other transit agencies in NY & NJ)

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