New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Vice President Joe Biden headed to Queens on Tuesday afternoon to break ground on the renovation of LaGuardia Airport, a $4 billion public-private partnership that was approved by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in March. Cuomo also reiterated his promise to extend an Air Train—as well as a high-speed ferry—to LaGuardia, the last major New York airport without a rail connection.
The vice president, who gave a long and rambling speech about America’s role in the world, did not point to the example of American exceptionalism right there on the podium: Cuomo’s astoundingly bad train project.
The Air Train, which the governor first proposed in January of 2015, will link the waterfront airport with subway and Long Island Railroad stops at Willets Point, in Queens. Contrary to some news reports, it did not break ground on Tuesday. But why is it still part of the LaGuardia Airport plan at all?
New York City needs this train like a fish needs a bicycle. It would be an egregious misuse of money and initiative, in a city whose everyday transit functions are at capacity, to extend such a gift to airport travelers, of all people. But then, it’s not a gift at all: The Cuomo Train is that rare project that both has the wrong goals and fails to meet them. (Two wrongs don't make a right, in this case.)
I had hoped the train might have been forgotten. As originally proposed, it certainly looked like an off-the-cuff throwaway Photoshopped by an intern in Albany. But the governor’s assurances on Tuesday—together with MTA chief Thomas Prendergast’s comments last month—indicate that he really does plan to build it. You wouldn’t have known it: There has been no comparison of alternative routes or methods, or any serious public analysis at all. (An Airport Advisory Panel, whose head was appointed by the governor, gave the idea a half-hearted sentence of approval last summer.)
Any semblance of study would have unearthed what Yonah Freemark noticed when the plan was announced back in 2015: For almost all New Yorkers, the $450 million Cuomo Train will actually be a slower way to get to the airport than existing transit services.
Airport transit proposals tend to be designed for white-collar professionals, and this plan is no exception: Its calling card will be the link to the city’s major midtown train stations, Penn Station and Grand Central. To paraphrase transit designer Jarrett Walker, it’s obvious that LaGuardia’s 11,000 airport workers, traveling twice a day, make more annual transit trips than 500,000 professionals traveling three or four times a year. But the plan doesn’t reflect that logic. Most LaGuardia workers live in Western Queens, East Harlem, Upper Manhattan, and the Bronx. This train isn’t for them.
Whom would it help, then? The trip from Penn Station to the Cuomo Train is 16 minutes, and if the Cuomo Train takes another 10 minutes, the total journey will be less than half an hour. But all you need is Google Maps to see that the transit trip from Penn Station to LaGuardia, using the airport bus from Woodside, can already be made in less than half an hour. (It’s not an accident that all previous Air Train ideas for LaGuardia had the train coming from the airport’s city-side, west or south, not, as Cuomo’s plan has it, from the east.)
The governor has his eye on East Side Access, the megaproject that will link Grand Central Terminal to the Long Island Railroad, or LIRR, in 2022. But here’s the thing: LIRR trains only run past the Cuomo Train site every half-hour on weekday afternoons. If those trains get evenly divided between Manhattan’s two major train stations, you’re looking at one express train per hour heading for the airport from each corner of Midtown. That’s pathetic, but the alternative—clogging the tunnels with empty commuter trains to cart a few travelers to the airport—is worse. (If you’re taking the subway, the bus from Woodside is much faster.)
The groundbreaking of the new airport will prompt another round of comparisons between Cuomo and Robert Moses, New York’s midcentury master builder. There is one way in which Cuomo seems to have inherited the Moses legacy. The midcentury planner was largely concerned with getting people in and out of New York City, with little regard for how his solutions would affect the city itself.
Cuomo has that mentality too. He left New York City years ago, and nearly every grand urban project he has suggested—from Penn Station to the Long Island Rail Road to LaGuardia—seems to aim to help more people do the same.