Last Tuesday at the LaGuardia Airport Marriott in East Elmhurst, community and advocacy groups hosted a forum and panel event to inform residents about how they can be involved and voice their concerns.
The public review process will be run by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The study will examine potential alternatives, impacts and mitigations of the project.
Last June, the State Legislature passed a parkland alienation bill that would allow the AirTrain to run over one of three routes: over Flushing Bay, over the promenade, or along the median of the Grand Central Parkway.
Michael Dulong, a senior attorney with the environmental nonprofit Riverkeeper, said they lobbied with local residents against the legislation, but to no avail.
“We’re concerned about park access and water quality,” he said.
The Port Authority released a request for proposals for an environmental review consultant to conduct the process in October. According to advocates, they asked the chosen firm to complete the entire review in one year, which residents say is too short.
The JFK AirTrain review took three years, they noted.
“They’re going to steamroll this in one year,” Dulong said. “We need all environmental impacts reviewed.”
The first part of the review is the scoping process, which will determine what issues will be covered in the environmental impact statement (EIS). Dulong said they will formally ask the FAA for public meetings then.
The scoping process is also the first opportunity for residents to submit comments to help structure the process.
The next step is the Draft EIS, where the consultant checks each alternative, studies their impact and determines its feasibility. The public will have 45 days for comment after the draft is published.
The last part is the Final EIS. According to Dulong, public comments will be addressed in this document. The FAA then has 30 days to render a final decision.
Dulong said some alternatives could include bus rapid transit, a ferry service from Manhattan or even extending the N/W lines from Astoria to LaGuardia Airport. The Port Authority will also consider no action as well.
During the panel part of the event, transit, parks and local advocates expressed their misgivings about the AirTrain.Frank Taylor, president of the Ditmars Boulevard Block Association and a member of Community Board 3, said his group is against the project because of the negative effects it will have on their homes.
Residents have already complained about how the LaGuardia Airport reconstruction has impacted the air quality, noise and traffic in their neighborhood.
“We just believe the AirTrain is a bad idea,” Taylor said.
The neighborhood leader also slammed the Port Authority for not being honest in their responses to residents’ concerns.
“They’re not genuine,” he said. “Why would we as a community trust them even farther?”
Leticia Ochoa, an East Elmhurst resident and organizer with the group Queens Neighborhood United (QNU), raised concerns that the project would lead to displacement of longtime residents.
She noted that the AirTrain will connect to Willets Point, where city and local officials are trying to build a new neighborhood from scratch. There have also been talks of rezoning Astoria Boulevard for new development, she said.
“Rents have been hiking because property values are going up,” Ochoa said. “Everybody wants to come to East Elmhurst. We’re close to everything.”
From a public transit perspective, Nick Sifuentes, executive director of the advocacy organization Tri-State Transportation Campaign, made the case that an AirTrain wouldn’t make much of an impact.
According to Sifuentes, in 2014 only 8 percent of people traveling to LaGuardia took the bus there. But in the same year, only 12 percent took the AirTrain to JFK Airport, which he noted is “not a significant difference.”
“Even though we don’t have a direct train connection to LaGuardia Airport, we still have mass transit connections,” he said. “We ignore those mass transit options at our peril.”
Sifuentes argued that the state should instead focus on making buses like the Q70, rebranded as the “LaGuardia Link,” and the M60 more efficient, more regular and free.
The Q70 connects riders from Roosevelt Avenue in Woodside and Jackson Heights, while the M60 comes from Harlem, and makes a stop on the N/W line in Astoria. The Q47, Q58 and Q72 also stop at LaGuardia.
“That will do the work the AirTrain will do and do it better,” he said. “We can improve bus service with absolutely fractions of that cost.”
Sifuentes also found problems with the AirTrain route. Travelers from Manhattan would have to take the 7 train or Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) to Willets Point, and double back around to the airport.
Even with the modernized Communications-Based Train Control (CBTC), the overcrowded 7 train won’t increase capacity that much, Sifuentes said. And unless the MTA increases service on the LIRR, travelers won’t want to wait long for the train.
Travelers from Long Island don’t have a direct LIRR route to Willets Point, so they have to make a stop at Woodside first.
As for how the AirTrain would benefit commuters in East Elmhurst, Sifuentes said he doesn’t see how it would help.
“Pain can be necessary, there are lots of places that have to deal with construction,” he said. “At the end of that project, it had better benefit people who suffer through it. I don’t see that here.”
Lynn Kelly, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, said her organization has not taken a position on the project yet. But she urged residents to speak up early and often during the environmental review process.
She shared that when there was a rezoning proposal in Coney Island, more than 350 residents showed up to public meetings, which influenced what was written and negotiated in the rezoning.
“You can protest and rally, but the more important thing is to show up and speak your mind,” Kelly said. “It makes a difference.”
“There’s a real opportunity for this EIS to have some teeth,” added Sifuentes, who recommended that the community come up with a list of demands. “The only way that this happens is if the community is organized and engaged in the process.”
Taylor urged residents in attendance to show up to all FAA and Port Authority public meetings.
“I don’t believe it’s a done deal until we say so,” he said. “We’re strong people, and we’re survivors. Let’s get through this together.”
In a statement, a Port Authority spokesperson said that the AirTrain would provide a reliable 30-minute trip between Midtown and the airport, with up to 10 million riders per year. It would take as many as 1.5 million cars off the road annually.
“It is morally indefensible not to be planning mass rail transit to LaGuardia at a time of severe increases in congestion, travel times and the impact of climate change,” the spokesperson said. “This means surrounding communities will see decreased traffic and less parking by airport passengers and workers.”
The rep added that another benefit is that no tax dollars would be used for the project.
“We have held extensive discussions with community groups and elected officials over the past year which has provided invaluable input as we’ve advanced planning,” the spokesperson added. “We continue to welcome this dialogue, and there will be multiple forums for additional input once the federally run environmental review process gets underway.”