Op-Ed: LaGuardia AirTrain is bound for glory

Hope Knight


Community concerns raised about AirTrain LaGuardia are familiar to anyone who has lived or worked in southeast Queens, where two decades ago we heard the same outcry over the proposal to build an AirTrain to JFK International Airport.

“Nobody will use it.” “Construction will destroy our neighborhoods.” “AirTrain will drive down our property values.” And, “AirTrain will do nothing to improve our local, struggling economy.”

Seventeen years after AirTrain JFK went into service, connecting the LIRR station at Jamaica with JFK International Airport, not one of those fears were realized. In fact, AirTrain JFK’s legacy is quite the opposite.

Take for example, predictions that AirTrain would lower property values. The reality is that property values increased after AirTrain.

Within a study area ranging two to three blocks from the AirTrain route on either side of VanWyck Expressway property values doubled within the first six years of the project’s completion. Clearly, AirTrain JFK, built on a modern concrete elevated track down the middle of a major highway didn’t have the negative impact on property values some opponents once feared.

What about claims that AirTrain would not live up to projections on ridership, because it didn’t provide a one-seat ride to Midtown Manhattan? 

Well, the ridership projections were off the mark. AirTrain carried far more passengers than projected and that ridership increased every year prior to the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Ridership on AirTrain JFK reached 8.7 million last year, including 6.7 million riders taking AirTrain to and from the LIRR station in Jamaica – a five-fold increase since the first full year of operation in 2004.

AirTrain didn’t just benefit travelers moving to and from JFK, it also benefited residents in and around Jamaica as well as across the city who now had greater access to the 40,000 jobs at the airport – one of the borough’s top employers.

With millions of travelers – many of them international visitors – moving through Jamaica every year, AirTrain has dramatically expanded our Downtown’s historic role as a transportation hub and commercial center, which has enjoyed the largest wave of economic growth in more than 60 years.

The arrival of AirTrain, coupled with a 2007 rezoning, has clearly been a significant catalyst for that growth.

Since these two pivotal moments, Downtown Jamaica has attracted more than $1 billion in private and public investment to create more than five million SF of new space. Currently, nearly six million SF is in various stages of development across Downtown Jamaica, including more than 4,000 mixed-income and market-rate apartments and over 2,000 hotel rooms.

The arrival of AirTrain, just minutes from JFK Airport, has linked Downtown Jamaica to the powerful economic engine that is JFK International Airport. New hotels designed for travelers now just a short ride from their airline terminals are sprouting up across Downtown Jamaica.

You can see the construction all around Jamaica’s transit hub, where the AirTrain Station connects to the LIRR Station, both just a short walk from the subway and an MTA bus terminal.

The Crossing at Jamaica Station includes 669 new apartments in two buildings. The redevelopment of the former Mary Immaculate Hospital is creating upwards of 1,000 apartments. A former NYPD garage on 168th Street is being transformed into the Archer Green Apartments with 380 new residential units. Those are just a few of more than a dozen residential projects. 

Based on our record of success, an AirTrain proposed for LaGuardia would have a similar and positive impact on the communities nearest the airport, which are, like Jamaica, extraordinary diverse and full of potential for economic growth.

A new and modern AirTrain station at Willets Point would connect to expanded, permanent LIRR service to Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal – that’s a big win for travelers, who would get a reliable and fast ride to Midtown Manhattan. 

But it’s also a win for some of the region’s major sports venues at CitiField and the US Tennis association. And it would open a wider door to one of the city’s great parks, Flushing Meadows-Corona.

And consider the potential impact of a new station and expanded LIRR service at on the 61-acre Willets Point development zone. AirTrain could be the catalyst that creates new housing, hotels, retail and recreation on a blighted and formerly industrial section of Flushing waterfront.

If AirTrain is only partially as successful in the communities around LaGuardia as it has been in Jamaica, we predict it will have been well worth the investment as we all work to rebound from our current crisis and rebuild smarter and stronger for a more equitable future.

Hope Knight is president and CEO of the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation.