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The La Guardia AirTrain Is Dead. Now What?

Not arriving after all. Photo: Office of Governor Andrew Cuomo

What we all knew was likely is now official: There’ll be no AirTrain to La Guardia Airport, says Governor Kathy Hochul via the New York Times. It’s the latest Andrew Cuomo pet project to be scratched, ostensibly because its budget has quintupled since it was proposed, and additionally because it was a pretty bad idea. Not that we don’t need a rail line to the airport, which virtually all world-class cities have and New Yorkers have pined for since Robert Moses failed to build it; this particular train, however, was misbegotten from the start, running out into Queens for some distance before doubling back to the airport. Critics called it the “backwards AirTrain”; its chief appeal was that it seemed buildable for much less money than a proper subway extension and thus appealed to the former governor’s sense of the politically achievable compromise. Once those economies didn’t prove out, and COVID reduced the number of travelers (and fares) in the system as a whole, the backwards train was run out of town.

Hochul’s plan is to beef up bus service to the airport with a dedicated bus lane and add a shuttle to the subway, both of whose start-up costs will be far more modest. That set of services draws on the 14 plans floated by the Port Authority (as well as, hilariously, a gondola scheme). It’s certainly better than nothing, but a bus-to-subway ride will never be genuinely popular, because schlepping your suitcase onboard and off twice, including the navigation of a couple of flights of stairs, is off-putting at best; if you’re even slightly less than able-bodied, it’s out of the question.

What would be a game changer would be an N train that hooks around the northern edge of Queens and reaches La Guardia, partly underground and partly above. That scheme might have been the one epic and lasting infrastructure project of the Giuliani administration, and it was nearing reality in 2001 — after which 9/11 reconstruction took precedence and the project failed to launch. A half-generation later, Cuomo disdained it, reportedly because he’d have to fight through a lot of Queens resistance, both grassroots and elected. (The Daily News called the naysayers “NAMBYs,” for “Not Above My Back Yard.”) It is also — as this excellent thread and story by the New York Post transit reporter Nolan Hicks both explain — a project with a combo platter of physical obstacles, owing to the site’s geology, a knot of wastewater infrastructure that’s in the way, and federal regulations about clearance for the nearby Grand Central Parkway. These are solvable problems, but in the aggregate they would (predictably) turn the project from pretty expensive to very expensive. (It’s still better than the gondola idea.)

All of which is to say that some of us had, until now, resigned ourselves to accepting the flawed half-backwards alternative as the best bad option. Maybe, once the dust settles, a subway option can come back into play — perhaps as a third-term Hochul initiative, should such a political scenario play out for her. We’ll see you at the ribbon-cutting around 2050.

The La Guardia AirTrain Is Dead. Now What?