Queens protesters say they’re getting ‘third-world’ treatment over LGA AirTrain

Angélica Acevedo/QNS

A coalition of Queens residents and businesses joined elected officials on the steps of City Hall Monday for a protest of what they called an “antidemocratic” review process for the multibillion-dollar AirTrain project.

Sensible Way to LGA, which includes East Elmhurst, Corona, Jackson Heights and Flushing residents, businesses, local nonprofits and citywide partners, expressed concern with the Port Authority’s plan to build a new AirTrain line from LaGuardia to Willets Point.

During Monday’s protest, which was led by Bronx Councilman Fernando Cabrera, Queens residents said the Port Authority hasn’t been transparent about their review process and aren’t considering the environmental impacts another major airport project could have on the community.

The highly contested LGA AirTrain has been in the works for several years now, but Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Port Authority are committed to bringing the $2 billion dollar plan to fruition sooner rather than later. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the lead agency designated with the review process for the AirTrain, has determined that the best option is a rail line from the Willets Point Long Island Rail Road station to LGA terminals.

According to the FAA, this alternative would extend west along Roosevelt Avenue and turn north following the Grand Central Parkway, while crossing the GCP/Whitestone Expressway interchange. The elevated line would then extend along the southern edge of the Flushing Bay Promenade, adjacent to the westbound lanes of the GCP to LGA, with two stations serving Terminals B and C.

But Frank Taylor, president of Ditmars Boulevard Block Association and a retired Rikers Island corrections officer, said the project is “fiscally irresponsible.”

“[Former Vice President] Joe Biden said that LaGuardia Airport is a third-world country. Well, you’re treating Queens like a third-world country. This is what third-world countries do: They don’t care about their citizens. They want people to come in and spend money. Why has the airport gotten such a pass?” 

Some of those present felt the project should undergo a formal ULURP (uniform land use review process).

Nuala O’Doherty, a longtime resident of Jackson Heights who is running for Assemblyman Michael DenDekker’s seat, said that she’s attended almost all of the Port Authority’s hearings and is only asking that they “be a good neighbor” and consider alternate routes in the existing mass transit system that could better serve the community. She mentioned the R and the N as possible lines to extend toward LaGuardia. 

Cabrera announced that there will be a public hearing on Jan. 29 at City Hall, which Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, chair of the Transportation Committee, said is an important way of guaranteeing oversight of the project.

“This is the biggest capital plan in the history of the MTA, and that capital plan requires oversight,” Rodriguez said at the protest. “That’s why we’re here — to demand the MTA and Port Authority to come on board and come to the hearing on the 29th where we would like answers to all those questions.”

Sensible Way also wrote a letter to Cuomo in December, writing that although they agree that LGA “sorely needs mass transit access, it is not clear that the proposed AirTrain is the best alternative.”

“As governor of the most progressive state in the nation, we implore you to put your stamp on a project that will carry mass transit into the future,” they wrote. “We therefore demand that the process considers all alternatives on an even playing field to determine what airport transit option most benefits all New Yorkers.”

They added that this could be “better accomplished if funding is allocated for an independent review of the alternatives analysis.”

The FAA has had several information sessions — with two upcoming sessions taking place on Tuesday, Jan. 14, and Wednesday, Jan. 15, at the New York LaGuardia Airport Marriott located at 102-05 Ditmars Blvd. — but members of the community say they haven’t been public hearings.

O’Doherty said they’re only considering the AirTrain, while other residents said that the sessions haven’t included a Q&A but have had FAA officials take comment from attendees and recorded it on their website.

Photo: Angélica Acevedo/QNS

Additionally, Taylor mentioned that during one of the first FAA information workshops, the Port Authority had armed policemen present.

“When they had their meetings at the Marriott Hotel, the Port Authority met us out there with six or seven police officers in riot gear, with long arms,” Taylor said. “We went downstairs and we were met by at least 50 to 70 construction workers, who were not from the area, and what they did was try to block the residents from seeing the displays that were there. Where were our elected officials?”

Port Authority spokesperson Ben Branham confirmed that there were “a couple” of officers present for part of the first meeting.

“There was a miscommunication that led to this that, once clarified, resulted in their early departure,” Branham stated. “Government agencies often err on the side of caution in providing a security presence for public meetings primarily to assist with crowd control if necessary. In this instance, it was not necessary and hence their early departure at that first meeting.”

In response to Sensible Way’s letter to Cuomo, Port Authority spokesperson Lindsay Kryzak said they have “conducted extensive community outreach about AirTrain LGA and that input has already led to an important change in the proposed route.”

“AirTrain LGA makes sense on every level, from improving access to LaGuardia for travelers and the thousands who work there, to reducing congestion on roads in neighborhoods, and to its benefits for the environment,” Kryzak said. “These benefits are clear in our proposal, and we remain fully committed to working with the local community as the review process continues.”

Kryzak added that the FAA’s independent process has been “extremely transparent and thorough.” They said there are additional meetings planned, including this week’s hearings, before the federal review is completed.

A Better Way to LGA (another Queens coalition with members representing the Queens Chamber of Commerce, Queens Economic Development Corporation, Long Island City Partnership, New York Building Congress, General Contractors Association, Tech:NYC, Delta, JetBlue and the New York Mets) told QNS that “like the New Yorkers rallying today” they care deeply about their city.

“And that’s exactly why the A Better Way to LGA coalition supports a project that gets cars and taxis off the road, improves the environment, creates good-paying union jobs, and won’t tear our neighbors from their homes,” the statement read. “The proposed route for the AirTrain LGA does not force New Yorkers from their homes or businesses, does not require the use of tax dollars, and continues to go through a transparent process that’s already included public hearings and listening sessions conducted separately by the Port Authority and the Federal Aviation Administration.”

Regarding the protest and comments that the AirTrain would cost taxpayer money, Branham told QNS that “The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey receives no taxpayer dollars from either state and there are no taxpayer dollars allocated to the AirTrain LGA.”

Better Way also disagreed with Sensible Way’s call to have the AirTrain project go through a ULURP, though. They added that “the elected officials from outside Queens who spoke today should come to Queens to hear for themselves why the time to build AirTrain LGA is now.”

Although there weren’t Queens lawmakers present at Monday’s protest, some have previously addressed the AirTrain. Senator Jessica Ramos once said the AirTrain “isn’t for” the Corona and Jackson Heights communities at her Town Hall in December.

QNS confirmed that Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez sent the FAA a letter on Jan. 10 questioning them for choosing their current plan despite the many alternatives brought up by the community and the study’s note that 255 out of 414 comments were in opposition to that route. In the letter, Ocasio-Cortez added that she was concerned that “77 submitted form letters were counted as a single public comment.”

Branham, though, said they have not received the letter as of Monday.

Councilman Francisco Moya told QNS he encourages his constituents to “participate in the ongoing public involvement process.” As one of the elected officials mentioned by those at the protest as being absent, Moya had a more critical response.

“It would, however, be easier to see their press conference as something more than pure political opportunism if half of those in attendance weren’t running for office or if they had attended any one of the numerous Community Board meetings, civic associations or AirTrain information sessions since this process began,” Moya stated.

Queens borough president candidate Anthony Miranda and convicted felon Hiram Monserrate, who is also district leader representing East Elmhurst, LeFrak City and parts of Corona and may be considering a run for Jeffrion Aubry’s Assembly seat, were present at Monday’s protest.

Moya added, “To those with an earnest interest in the AirTrain, it’s important to remember that the city has no authority over the project. Authorization for the project was passed through the state Legislature. Accordingly, members of the public should make their voices heard at the state level.”

Branham emphasized that community input has already influenced their plan, which was authorized by the New York state Legislature.

“LaGuardia Airport is the only major east coast airport without a mass transit rail link, the lack of which has led to congested roads and air pollution and left travelers with completely unpredictable and unreliable travel times to the airport,” Branham said. “The AirTrain LGA will take cars off the road, reduce pollution and finally provide the predictable and reliable travel times to the airport that passengers deserve.”