Queens community groups voice opposition to LaGuardia AirTrain project and review process

A rendering of the proposed LaGuardia AirTrain. (Courtesy of the governor’s office)

Queens community groups and state Senator Jessica Ramos voiced resolute opposition to the proposed LaGuardia AirTrain and criticized the project’s review process during a town hall on Tuesday, April 6.

The in-person town hall was hosted at the World’s Fair Marina Restaurant and broadcast over Zoom, with organizers saying that about 90 people tuned in virtually and more than a dozen attended in person. The event was sponsored by Ramos, Ditmars Boulevard Block Association, Guardians of Flushing Bay and the Sensible Way to LGA Coalition.

The few residents who spoke at the event expressed various concerns with the project as it stands, many of which remain the same after nearly two years.

The proposed AirTrain, a $2 billion project proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, involves construction of a rail line of approximately two miles for a people mover with three stations, two at LaGuardia Airport and one off the airport. The stations would connect with the 7 train and the Long Island Rail Road’s Willets Point station.

Some of the concerns voiced at the town hall include the environmental and health impact the project may have on immediate communities of northwestern Queens; inadequate funding for park and promenade land; lack of targeted jobs for residents; property damages to businesses and homes; and overcrowding and accessibility issues on the LIRR and 7 train.

Ramos, who could not attend the town hall in person because she was voting on the late state budget in Albany, said that Cuomo’s AirTrain is a “vanity project” that “must be stopped.”

“East Elmhurst has long been a transportation desert, a health care desert, our schools have been chronically underfunded,” Ramos said. “I can think of 100 different ways to spend $2 billion in East Elmhurst alone, not only our district, and let me tell you, none of it is an AirTrain that bypasses our community, that does not help our neighbors who work at LaGuardia Airport get there any cheaper or any faster, and that just simply is a new accessory for the rich in Midtown or for the rich on Long Island to be able to get here faster.”

The town hall comes after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released its 600-page Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) last month. The FAA is expected to release their Record of Decision in April, which is the final step before construction may start in June.

During the town hall, Ramos said the FAA is “complicit in this boondoggle of a project because of regulatory capture.”

Mike Dulong, senior attorney with Hudson Riverkeeper, an environmental advocacy organization, said the FAA’s review process was marred with issues from the beginning, including an outreach process that didn’t reach the linguistically diverse communities of East Elmhurst, Flushing, Corona and Jackson Heights, and an analysis that didn’t fully consider other transportation alternatives for the airport.

“As we’ve been watching this for the past two years … what we’ve seen is that the FAA has not done its job,” Dulong said.

That day, Riverkeeper released a report with documents they attained as a result of litigation that they say showcases how the FAA critiqued the Port Authority’s initial analysis of the project for excluding other potential alternatives. They also believe other possible additions to the project — such as possible plans to construct a rental car facility, additional off-site parking, an on-airport hotel and ferry service — mentioned in the documents were not fully considered in the FEIS.

The organization sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, asking for more scrutiny of the review process and FEIS.

When asked for comment regarding the Riverkeeper’s documents, the FAA said they’re reviewing their report and letter.

The Port Authority maintains that the project will reduce traffic on local streets and highways and provide benefits identified by residents, including jobs creation and a $50 million investment in the Flushing Bay Promenade and other local parks.

“The FAA conducted a thorough process that resulted in a 600-page environmental impact statement that appropriately and independently examined all alternatives and ultimately identified the Port Authority’s proposed route as the preferred alternative for bringing mass rail transit to LaGuardia Airport,” a spokesperson for the Port Authority said.

But some of the residents who spoke about the plan as it stands at the town hall said the benefits being offered to the community are not nearly enough considering the price tag.

James Carriero, a local attorney, pointed to the scenic view of the bay at the World’s Fair Marina.

“This view and this promenade are going to be adversely affected by the AirTrain that is going to be about 30 feet high on a large concrete driveway supported by at least 40 large concrete columns,” Carriero said. “It will look just like the JFK AirTrain. How many of you have driven down the Van Wyck Expressway alongside JFK? That’s a beautiful looking AirTrain, isn’t it?”

Both Dulong and Carriero said the project isn’t offering enough funding for the 13-acre Flushing Bay Promenade and other parks.

Dulong said the park will only receive $16.5 million, which he said is “virtually nothing” when compared to funding that other parks have received.

“That’s just over a million dollars per acre for this 13-acre park, those other parks are looking at something like $5 million per acre,” Dulong said. “So this community is being short-changed.”

Others, including Ramos, are proponents of extending the N and W line to LaGuardia instead.

James Mongeluzo of Sensible Way to LGA pointed to new FAA policy that he said could fund the extension. He explained that the reason the FAA is involved is because the Port Authority wants to collect passenger fees to help fund the project.

“Many of us believe [the extension] is a much more ideal solution than having this AirTrain that will take you to Willets Points and take you to the east and probably charge you $7.75 just to get to a subway or LIRR, where then you would have to pay an additional fee,” Mongeluzo said. “Direct connection to the subway would be ideal because it would probably encourage way more people to take mass transit.”

John Choe, executive director of the Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce and candidate for City Council District 20, said many small businesses in the area are being ignored.

“To me, that’s ludicrous, and it really proves the point that this project is not being built for us,” Choe said.

Choe added that the project is just a “legacy project” for Cuomo, who’s currently being investigated for 15,000 nursing homes deaths and for sexual harassment claims.

“I would say an equal or even bigger crime is what he’s doing here,” Choe said. “Because we have tens of thousands of people who are hungry. … We have people who can’t get basic health care because we don’t have enough hospitals, we have small businesses that are dying, people are losing their livelihoods, and what is the governor proposing? An AirTrain to nowhere, to benefit his corporate donors.”

Frank Taylor, president of the Ditmars Boulevard Block Association, said the community will fight to stop the project.

“We do not want our community destroyed for Manhattan, for Long Island, for visitors who come to this airport,” Taylor said. “We are the residents. We are the backbone. We are the taxpayers. This is our home.”