By Jacob Kaye
About a year ago, Governor Kathy Hochul ordered the state put its controversial plan to build an AirTrain to LaGuardia Airport on pause.
Hochul, who inherited the $2 billion rail link first pitched by disgraced former Governor Andrew Cuomo, then ordered the Port Authority to reassess the plan and launch a review of over a dozen alternative transit options that could bring passengers to the airport, which is currently at the end of an $8 billion renovation.
The governor’s decision was prompted by growing dissatisfaction over the project from a number of local elected officials in Queens. They worried the AirTrain, proposed to run from Willets Point to LaGuardia, was too expensive, too Manhattan-centric and would only interfere with the lives of the Queens residents living near it.
About a year after Hochul put the project on pause, that review has yet to be completed and no construction work on any public transit option to LaGuardia has been undertaken – however, the airport’s renovation has continued. And during that year, officials have marked the area the AirTrain was set to originate from with a number of ambitious and neighborhood-changing plans.
According to Hersh Parekh, the director of government and community relations at the Port Authority, the review of the AirTrain and 13 alternative routes is in its final stages.
While Parekh didn’t provide a date the review will be completed, he said it would be delivered to the governor “soon.”
“I don’t think it’ll be too many months, but I don’t think it’s a matter of weeks,” Parekh recently told the Eagle. “We’re sort of in that phase of things where they are starting to wind down.”
The reason for the lengthy review, Parekh said, is its comprehensiveness.
“It’s been a very comprehensive process, looking at everything thoroughly, just to make sure we haven’t missed anything,” he said. “And that’s one of the reasons to take a little bit longer than we would have liked.”
John Lindsay, a spokesperson for the governor said: “As Governor Hochul has said, New Yorkers deserve world-class transportation to world-class airports, and we are continuing to review the proposals and related community feedback, in consultation with the Port Authority and their panel of experts, and will work with stakeholders to move forward.”
Hochul first ordered the Port Authority to review the plan to build the AirTrain – which was approved by the Federal Aviation Administration in July 2021 – in October 2021. The AirTrain was one of her predecessor’s pet projects and one that Cuomo had pushed forward despite widespread opposition.
“I have an opportunity to take a clean look at these issues and to hear from many individuals but there were alternatives on the table that even the [Federal Aviation Administration] people are saying did not look at as closely as they should have,” Hochul said at the time. “We will have state-of-the-art, world-class mass transit to get people from LaGuardia to the City of New York. I’m going to find the best way to do that.”
The following March, the Port Authority hosted two public feedback sessions in Queens, where participants were asked to give their thoughts on a number of public transit options to the airport. Many of the options, which included increased bus service, ferry service, several subway extensions, two different AirTrain routes and pods that would carry small groups of passengers to and from the airport, were previously presented to and rejected by the FAA.
Those feedback sessions, additional surveys that were sent out to stakeholders in the area and the opinions of members of the Port Authority’s “expert” panel, have all been factored into the ongoing review.
Should the Port Authority decide to stick with its plans to build an AirTrain from Willets Point to LaGuardia, it will have new complications to factor in.
In the past several months, city officials unveiled their most concrete plans yet to redevelop Willets Point, the long-ignored corner of Queens across the street from Citi Field. In October, Mayor Eric Adams announced that the city’s first-ever stadium dedicated to professional soccer will be built in the neighborhood.
Additionally, the city plans to build multiple affordable housing complexes, a new school and retail facilities in the area.
Steve Cohen, the owner of the New York Mets, has also recently unveiled plans to build atop Citi Field’s parking lot, which, like Willets Point, is owned by the city. Cohen has held several “visioning sessions” for Queens residents to come share their thoughts on what they may want to see built in the area.
The visioning sessions come as Cohen has launched a quiet campaign to snag one of the state’s three downstate casino licenses, which are expected to be doled out at the end of the year, and build a gambling establishment across the street from where the AirTrain station would potentially be placed.
“Quite a few significant proposals for development have emerged since we killed the previous AirTrain proposal,” State Senator Jessica Ramos told the Eagle in a statement. “The NYCFC soccer stadium and potential changes to the area around Citi Field are emphasizing that this part of Queens needs practical and accessible transit.”
Ramos was one of the leading lawmakers voicing opposition to the AirTrain. During the Port Authority’s public feedback sessions, Ramos told the Eagle that she hoped that whatever transit option is selected is able to provide transit options for residents of East Elmhurst and Corona.
“We are talking about thousands of families that will be moving to a transit-starved part of Queens,” Ramos said last week. “The governor agreed at the time that the LGA AirTrain was not it, and I am encouraged to see her focus on thoughtful transit expansion as a priority for her first term.”
Frank Taylor, who leads the Ditmars Boulevard Block Association, told the Eagle in March that he felt the public feedback session was a disingenuous attempt to drum up support for the AirTrain, which he opposed.
Nearly a year later, he feels the same about both the feedback sessions and the AirTrain proposal.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” Taylor said. “It never made any sense.”
But while construction of the AirTrain may have been staved off for the past year while the review is underway, Taylor said he and his neighbors are still struggling from the effects of construction on the airport.
“For us, it hasn’t really been a year of waiting,” he said. “We’re still hearing the pounding [of the construction].”
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