Final approval of the $2.1 billion LaGuardia AirTrain project has been delayed by the federal government just as shovels were set to hit the ground on construction of the controversial light rail system.
The Federal Aviation Administration will take longer than expected to reach a decision on the final approval of the project, known as a Record of Decision, citing concerns over the environmental review process and intense pushback from the community around LaGuardia Airport in East Elmhurst, and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents the area.
“We are working to answer additional questions from members of the New York delegation and other community groups,” an FAA spokesperson said. “The FAA expects to issue a decision soon.”
Governor Andrew Cuomo announced earlier this month that great strides have been made in LaGuardia’s $8 billion reconstruction project with the completion of its outer roadway network six months ahead of schedule and under budget. Cuomo had moved the project forward during the COVID-19 pandemic to take advantage of reduced traffic and travel volume but the same formula ran afoul of state Senator Jessica Ramos, who voiced opposition to the AirTrain project at an April town hall meeting, one year after the pandemic ravaged her district.
“My neighbors need a hospital. They need good jobs so that they can put food on their tables,” Ramos declared. “ We can’t eat the AirTrain.”
Ocasio-Cortez jumped into the fray soon afterward saying the infrastructure project didn’t make logistical sense, and that a review of documents by the environmental group Riverkeeper showed the case for the AirTrain was “really sketchy.” In a letter to the FAA, the congresswoman asked the feds to “refrain from approving” the project and prevent the Port Authority from beginning construction.
“This project would be built in the heart of one of the most heavily impacted communities by COVID-19, with many community members opposing the development,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote. “It is critical that this project be held to the highest ethical and efficacy standards – and it is clear that has not been the case to date.”
Mike Dulong, Riverkeeper’s senior attorney, explained why the Westchester-based organization, which played a key role in restoring the Hudson River to pristine condition, initiated an investigation into the LaGuardia AirTrain project, which would connect to the Willets Point transit hub near Citi Field with a monorail running along Flushing Bay.
“Before this major rail project is routed through waterfront parkland in the environmental justice community of East Elmhurst, it must be carefully vetted to guarantee it is the best possible transit option for all New Yorkers,” Dulong said. “We appreciate that the FAA is reviewing the issues raised in the released documents, and we urge the agency to impartially consider the viability of other transit alternatives, such as a one-seat subway ride from Manhattan or ferry service from 34th Street.”
The governor’s office deferred to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to respond to the FAA’s stoppage and the delay.
“We thank and commend the FAA for conducting an exhaustive and independent environmental review that benefited from extensive input and engagement and support from the public and the local community during the two-year long EIS process,” a Port Authority spokesperson said. “We look forward to the conclusion of the review with the issuance of the Record of Decision.”
Councilman Francisco Moya, whose district includes LaGuardia Airport and the neighborhoods that surround it, was supportive of the delay.
“We couldn’t be happier to see the FAA taking the community’s concerns seriously and pausing to build a better relationship and more trust,” Moya said.
The construction of the AirTrain that would have started this month would have been minor “early works” according to a source with knowledge of the project.
The selection of a firm to design, build, operate and maintain the AirTrain is not expected to be rewarded until March of 2022 and major construction would begin in April, pending FAA approval.