In October 2014, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a design competition to rebuild LaGuardia Airport. Joined by then–Vice President Joe Biden, who had likened the airport’s conditions to a “third-world country,” Cuomo said that, in addition to the renovation, he would like to see more transportation options for getting to the airport, which is accessible only by car and by bus. A fast ferry, the governor suggested. He was also open to an extension of the commuter rail or the subway system.
Six and a half years later, the airport’s new terminals sparkle, but Andrew Cuomo’s star is diminished. With dual investigations into his conduct with female staffers and his administration’s tampering with COVID death statistics in nursing homes, the governor’s future in Albany is uncertain. If he keeps his job, it will be in a state of perpetual conflict with the many Democratic politicians at the state and federal level who have called for his resignation.
On Monday, though, the governor got a little good news: The Federal Aviation Administration gave its final approval for a train to LaGuardia Airport, which will break ground as soon as June. It may not be Cuomo’s final megaproject, but it is likely the last one to date from his apex in power, a time when whatever he dreamed up one day would become New York policy the next. From conception to construction, the episode demonstrates the enormous influence he has held over New York state. Once Andrew Cuomo got an idea, there was no sense trying anything else.
A train to LaGuardia Airport had been a longtime dream of New York City planners. In the late ’90s, for example, Mayor Rudy Giuliani and the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority teamed up on a proposal to extend a Queens subway line (today’s N train) to the airport, putting most of midtown Manhattan within a half-hour trip of the airport. The city and the MTA each committed almost a billion dollars to the Astoria-line extension, but after the 9/11 attacks the funding was redistributed to other projects.
Anyone yearning for a subway to the airport, however, got a rude awakening in January 2015 when Cuomo unveiled the airport train during a breakfast speech. It was not a subway line. It was a people mover, one of those airport shuttles that connects to the transit system, a train to the train (whose odd persistence over more integrated forms of airport transit is due to a federal rule-making oversight). It looked like this:
Most beguiling, the governor’s train ran east from LaGuardia, not west—away from Manhattan, away from the subway, away from the airport’s own workforce. It connected to the city’s transit network at distant Willets Point, home of the New York Mets and a future project by Cuomo donor Related Companies. It was a connection to LaGuardia, all right—but in every way the opposite of the plan the city and state had settled on two decades earlier.
The announcement seemed to catch the governor’s subordinates at the MTA and the Port Authority, which runs the region’s airports, off guard. The two agency chiefs, Pat Foye and Tom Prendergast, responded later in the day with a short statement to “congratulate the Governor on his foresight.” Other New York power players seemed similarly dazzled. Mitchell Moss, the director of the Rudin Center for Transportation at New York University, enthused to the New York Times: “This is a breakthrough. They may need to rename LaGuardia after Cuomo.”
This wasn’t really how regional planning was supposed to work, with Andrew Cuomo dragging a golden crayon across a map. No problem: The governor’s Airport Master Plan Advisory Panel returned six months later with a report that endorsed the governor’s vision, and thereafter, in a superficial nod to “process,” official planning documents from the Port Authority and the FAA would refer to the panel’s report (not the governor’s breakfast slideshow) as the catalyst for the new train route.
But there was no doubt who had called the shots. This was master builder behavior, and as if to drive the point home, the summer LaGuardia press release wrangled a quote from Robert Moses biographer Robert Caro, who said of the new airport, “That’s quite a heroic vision. It’s not an improvement, it’s a transformation.”
The next year, 2016, Cuomo and Biden returned to the airport to announce the new terminals—and Cuomo again talked up the train, though it had gotten neither study nor scrutiny. In 2017, the Port Authority set aside money for the train and awarded a design contract. In the summer of 2018, the New York State Legislature passed a law that allowed the Port Authority to seize land along the route.
All this might have gone without notice, had the route not been so … weird. Because it ran away from Manhattan, the transit writer Ben Kabak nicknamed it the Backwards AirTrain. If the ubiquitous motto of Cuomo building projects was Excelsior, Latin for “ever-higher,” this was Retrorsior.
Another analysis, by the Urban Institute’s Yonah Freemark, showed the train would offer few time savings for most riders trying to get to the airport. Planned around an out-of-the-way Long Island Railroad station and a subway station at the end of a very busy No. 7 line, the finished train would barely improve on the city’s existing LaGuardia shuttles even if your connections lined up perfectly. The cost, meanwhile, had quadrupled from $450 million in the governor’s 2015 address (“relatively inexpensive,” said Elliot Sander, head of the Regional Plan Association) to more than $2 billion.
So when the Port Authority finally released its analysis of alternatives, in October 2018, it felt like something of a rigged game: Obviously, the governor’s choice was the agency’s choice, and requirements like “build a big parking garage” and “reduce the use of on-road vehicles” and “avoid substantial community disruption” seemed designed to sink once-favored ideas like a smoother, traffic-free bus connection or a Chicago-style subway extension.
Under the governor’s plan, the report boasted, morning peak travel from LaGuardia to Penn Station via the Long Island Railroad would take 33 minutes—but it didn’t mention that even with planned service increases, that LIRR train to Penn would only run once every 30 minutes. So 33 minutes … or 62, depending on your luck.
The editorial boards of the New York Post and the New York Daily News objected. Elected officials complained. “I urge the FAA to reject the proposal and instead explore alternatives such as expanding bus access and the possibility of an extension to the N and W subway lines,” wrote Queens state Sen. Jessica Ramos, when the agency opened its public comment period. “I am also concerned about the lack of transparency in the decision-making process that FAA engaged in to select the LGA AirTrain, amid other alternatives,” wrote Queens Rep. Grace Meng, who had initially endorsed the idea. Queens Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also asked why the alternatives had been rejected.
In the final environmental impact statement released this week by the FAA, those concerns are all brushed aside. This is not a public transportation project, the report chides. Dedicated bus lanes would increase traffic. A subway would require moving utilities and digging a tunnel to duck the flight path.
As for the idea that the AirTrain might actually be slower than the existing shuttles that link LaGuardia to nearby subway hubs, “travel time was not analyzed as part of the alternatives screening process.” Instead, the improved “time certainty” would be one of the benefits of what the FAA’s consultants called “premium transit.” It might not be better, but it was certain. And premium!
In defense of the project were thousands of form letters organized by building trades unions, as well as the usual cast of notables rallying to support another of the governor’s initiatives. One name caught my eye: “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz, the longtime city transportation guru who pioneered Manhattan bus lanes as city traffic commissioner and had once backed the LaGuardia subway extension.
What changed? Schwartz said he had grown disillusioned with new tunnel projects by the delays and overruns on the state’s other marquee initiatives, such as the Second Avenue Subway. He had also been surprised by the high ridership of the AirTrain at nearby John F. Kennedy International Airport (which he had once opposed). “What I like about it is: It’s real. It’s a plan that can be implemented.”
And that, actually, appeared to be Andrew Cuomo’s conclusion as well. The backward AirTrain may not have been the right thing to build, but it was the easy thing to build. Easy like closing the subways every night. Easy like shutting down the Moreland Commission. “Forget your transit experts,” Cuomo told reporters in May. “You know what’s more unpopular for the people in the neighborhood that are affected? The subway plan. … I don’t want a project that’s going to be in court for 150 years. When I say I’m going to do something, I actually do it.”