Despite taking a massive financial hit from the COVID-19 pandemic, Port Authority boss Rick Cotton assured stakeholders Monday that the LaGuardia AirTrain project still has the green light.
The reassurance comes a day before the Federal Aviation Administration is set to begin its public review of the project.
Speaking at a panel organized by the Association for a Better New York, Cotton gave updates on the AirTrain, which is in many ways the seminal piece of the $8 billion rebuild of LaGuardia Airport.
In addition to his assurance that the project will go on despite deep financial troubles at the authority, Cotton said the Federal Aviation Administration had completed a little over half of its independent environmental review of the project and determined that the AirTrain route as proposed by the Port Authority is indeed the most viable.
“The FAA did its own independent analysis and it came to the same conclusion,” Cotton said. “It is an independent validation and verification of that being by far the most preferable route for the AirTrain to follow.”
A matter of much contention, the AirTrain route proposed by the Port Authority runs from Penn Station to Grand Central Station in Manhattan, to the Willets Point Long Island Rail Road Station. From there, the AirTrain would run on the northern edge of the Grand Central Parkway before touching down at LaGuardia Airport, six minutes later.
The route, according to Cotton, has many benefits, including mitigating traffic to the airport, cutting back on pollution and making the smallest impact on the East Elmhurst community.
“While we’re in the COVID-19 period, travel will come back, the congestion will come back and the pollution will come back,” Cotton said. “It is a route that has no takings of private property and no construction in built-up areas either residential or commercial … Until three weeks ago, the route of the AirTrain from the airport to Willets Point was the route that had been determined based on extensive engineering studies, consultant studies, consultation with the community carried out by the Port Authority … The Federal Aviation Administration agreed with our assessment that the alignment – the route we have proposed – should be the preferred alternative.”
Despite the potential to carry 6 to 10 million riders per year free of emissions, communities in East Elmhurst and the surrounding neighborhoods have been vocal in their opposition to the project and the potential impact it would have on property values and quality of life.
Though the Port Authority has historically been a self-sustaining entity, its leaders asked the federal government for $3 billion dollars in relief funds in July, a move that was scorned by many, including Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“While state and local funding is desperately needed in the next COVID-19 relief package, it would be the ultimate insult to finally send aid to this community in the form of a project that they firmly oppose and that could further jeopardize their health and safety,” said Ocasio-Cortez. “The proposed Willis Point route is likely to lead to overcrowding on the 7 train, a concern the community has raised for years but which has gained additional urgency in a post-COVID-19 era. There are also valid ecological concerns about the construction through park and marshland that this route would require. Most importantly, however, is the general disregard for community input. Over half of the public comments submitted to this project opposed the AirTrain and yet this majority was utterly disregarded.”
But the community will soon again have the opportunity to share their concerns as the FAA begins its public review process on the project on Tuesday, Sept. 22. Three public hearings will be held on the project this week and members of the public have until Oct. 5 to submit their opinions on the environmental review.
In addition to the LaGuardia AirTrain, the Port Authority has also committed to revamping the AirTrain at Newark Airport. Though the 2021 groundbreaking on the LaGuardia AirTrain project may seem dubious in the wake of the authority’s financial issues, Cotton remained steadfast that the project will go on.
“We are not going to leave these airport projects unfinished and that includes these two AirTrains,” Cotton said.
Additional reporting by Mark Hallum.