Last Tuesday and Wednesday, the FAA hosted public information sessions at the New York LaGuardia Airport Marriott to present their draft analysis of alternative routes.
Hundreds of residents showed up, including dozens from the Ditmars Boulevard Block Association, which opposes the AirTrain. Group president Frank Taylor led a protest outside the hotel ballroom.
“The process is tainted,” he said. “To pass this off as a proper research program is ludicrous.”
Taylor cast doubt that the AirTrain would fulfill its goal of getting passengers from midtown to the airport in 30 minutes. He noted that the 7 train is already a “debacle,” and asserted that passengers won’t want to go on a crowded train with bags and then board a tram and pay another fare.
The Ditmars Boulevard resident said the FAA didn’t receive proper funding to conduct a proper scoping for the analysis.
“The scoping they did is ridiculous,” he said. “They put in helicopters and gondolas.”
The block association has enlisted the help of Bronx councilman Fernando Cabrera, who is challenging Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the Democratic primary this year.
The district includes portions of western and northern Queens, including East Elmhurst, Jackson Heights and Corona.
“The community has spoken very loudly,” Cabrera said. “The fact is that they don’t want the AirTrain.”
Cabrera said what’s missing is the Uniformed Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), a process that took place when the JFK AirTrain was built in the 1990s. He said the lack of a ULURP process denies the community “due process.”
He also announced that on January 29, the City Council’s Transportation Committee will hold a hearing about the LaGuardia AirTrain, which Cabrera said will allow the community to be heard.
“That’s what we’re asking for,” he said, “a transparent and open process.”
Ocasio-Cortez also weighed in on the AirTrain project earlier this month. In a January 10th letter to the FAA, the congresswoman noted that out of 414 public comments about the AirTrain, 255 were opposed.
She also found it “concerning” that 77 submitted letters were counted as a single public comment because the letters were all identical. Ocasio-Cortez said that amounted to “denying a voice” to community members.
In the letter, the congresswoman requested clarification on why ferry service, a dedicated bus lane for the Q70, a subway extension from the elevated Astoria Boulevard station and a fixed guideway from the Woodside and Jackson Heights train stations were ruled out as viable options.
At the information session, Andrew Brooks, the FAA’s environmental program manager for the Eastern Region, explained that the alternatives other than the AirTrain were screened out because they did not meet the agency’s criteria.
Many options that involved on-the-ground transportation, such as dedicated bus lanes, were ruled out due to the lack of “time certainty,” meaning the ability to ensure repetitive service on a consistent schedule.
“A lot of the alternatives failed in that regard because of the traffic and the congestion issues in and around LaGuardia,” he said.
For example, one alternative that was screened out was a dedicated bus service up and down Junction Boulevard and 94th Street. Brooks, who said he used to live near Junction Boulevard so knows firsthand the congestion there, noted that the boulevard has two lanes in each direction.
“One of those lanes is always filled with cars, so if you’re dedicating a lane to buses, then all of the cars currently using that have to go somewhere else,” he said. “Moving those cars off of Junction to accommodate dedicated bus service exacerbates the congestion issue in the community surrounding it.”
As for ferries, Brooks said that option does provide time certainty from ferry landings to either side of the airport. But once passengers get to those stations, transferring between terminals is where the time-certainty “starts to fall apart.”
“It’s all the congestion of the internal network,” he said.
Many residents have called for building an extension of the elevated N/W train lines to LaGuardia Airport, either from Ditmars Boulevard or Astoria Boulevard. But the FAA’s report ruled out that alternative due to “infrastructure effects,” like extensive construction, modification of the Hell Gate Bridge, and the impacts on water and sewer lines.
The Hell Gate Bridge in particular, Brooks said, services the Amtrak’s northeast corridor. Any modification in that area would require removal of Amtrak service for an extended period of time.
“That was something that we felt was not a reasonable obstacle to overcome,” he said. “A resolution that would add a bunch of complexity to the project and much additional time and cost.”
The draft analysis concluded that the only two options the environmental impact statement would study are no action or the AirTrain.
“It’s the only solution that meets the criteria we’ve established for this process,” Brooks said.
The draft EIS is expected to come out this summer, followed by a public comment period. After taking input, the final EIS will be completed by spring 2021.
Observers of the FAA’s process have criticized the alternatives analysis. Mike Dulong, a staff attorney with the environmental organization Riverkeeper, said options like ferry service or bus rapid transit would have helped not just passengers, but also LaGuardia Airport employees and residents in surrounding neighborhoods.
“The reasons given to get rid of those and not even look at them from a cost-benefit analysis were totally lame,” he said. “They don’t make any sense.”
Dulong said Riverkeeper is reviewing the analysis to ensure it comports with the law. But he noted that that review won’t be done until the FAA releases its final EIS next year.
For residents like Taylor, however, the entire process to study the AirTrain has been a “farce.”
“I can’t participate in a farce,” he said.