Just Kill the LaGuardia AirTrain Already – and Do Something Better

Improving New York City’s existing bus and rail infrastructure for LaGuardia is smarter than building some flashy new project.

Ethan Finlan | August 6, 2018 | |
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LaGuardia Airport is the closest of New York City’s commercial airports to Manhattan, but it might be the hardest to reach. With congested street and highway access throughout the day, and no connection to the subway, the airport’s proximity disguises an inefficient setup. This dilemma compounds an already dismal situation for the busy airfield. LaGuardia is often ranked as the most delay-prone airport in America, and has been famously compared to a “third-world airport.” Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration is backing a proposal to improve the airport’s connectivity by building an “AirTrain” system. One problem: it would be inefficient and costly – with the latest estimates ranging around $1.5 billion.

AirTrain is shorthand for an automated people mover common in large airports. These systems connect terminals to each other and to airport services, including nearby transit stations. The proposed AirTrain LaGuardia would link the airport’s three terminals to the Willets Point area (home of the Mets stadium), where passengers could transfer to the Long Island Rail Road. Station renderings suggest that express trains will be added to the Port Washington Line, allowing passengers to access Midtown quickly.

Urbanist commentators, including Yonah Freemark, have pointed out numerous flaws in the proposal. To reach Manhattan via the AirTrain, passengers would have to backtrack. Running express service on the Port Washington Line would require taking scarce slots that could be used to move more commuters. The best way to access LGA would in fact be to resurrect some form of the Giuliani-era proposal to extend the N train.

Unfortunately, given the MTA’s current circumstances, such a project is not the highest priority. The existing subway system is faced with a disastrous state of under repair. Ridership is consistently dropping. Important extensions – such as the completion of the Second Avenue Subway– face staggering construction costs. Improved airport access must be lower cost than them.

Is there such a solution?  Happily, there is, and it could help buses move more quickly through Manhattan.

Instead of building a fixed rail link, the MTA or a private partner could run an express coach service between LaGuardia and a terminal in Manhattan (the East Side would likely be the best location.) On its own, this is not a novel idea. There’s already a semi-rapid bus connecting the airport’s terminals with busy subway stations, and a private service runs to LaGuardia from Grand Central. However, rather than dropping passengers off at the terminals to go through check in and security, the best solution would allow passengers to check their bags and possibly clear security at a Manhattan terminal. Passengers would disembark at the “airside” (post-security) section of terminals.

The viability of such an option would depend on its speed. If it contends with the same traffic jams that private autos and taxis get caught up in, the gains from early check-in would be lost. Establishing HOV 5+ lanes, which this bus would use, on the Grand Central Parkway would keep trips fast. These lanes could also serve to benefit existing express bus routes.

Politicians tend to exaggerate the value of airport connectors. Rail extensions need to serve the highest-demand corridors. Instead of spending scarce tax dollars on airport access, New York needs to make better use of its existing infrastructure first.

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