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Photo: Jenna Bagcal/QNS
Rick Cotton next to a rendering of LaGuardia Airport.

Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton spoke with QNS about the LGA AirTrain following recent comments made against the project’s current plan by Queens lawmakers, emphasizing that the $2 billion that is allocated for the project won’t cost taxpayer money and is “within the authority and power of the Port Authority.”

“Our funding is limited to the facilities that we operate, so the money that is going into the AirTrain and the money that is going into LaGuardia Airport, have both the requirements and they meet the requirements for our spending and our financing,” Cotton said. “No no one has the ability to divert that funding to other projects that are not either owned or operated by the Port Authority. So it is simply not accurate to raise questions [such as] ‘Why don’t we take that funding and apply it to other potentially worthwhile projects?’ It simply is not legal to do that.”

Cotton’s response comes after Senator Jessica Ramos and Councilman Costa Constantinides told QNS that the LGA AirTrain needs a “comprehensive plan for the people in our East Elmhurst community” and a plan that won’t be at the “expense of our already precious ecosystem.”

Ramos mentioned that the funds “would be better spent improving our infrastructure and providing better transportation alternatives for the people who make Queens thrive.”

In response to the elected official’s suggestion, Cotton said that while other projects “may very well be worthwhile” the PA’s funding is “limited to facilities that the Port Authority either owns or operates and comes within the mandate of the organization.”

When asked why some of the 47 options the FAA reviewed included possible subway alternatives, Cotton said that those alternatives had “multiple problems” that involved “building in very densely populated residential or commercial areas.”

Cotton added that PA is committed to minimizing “to the maximum extent the impact” of the project by taking “robust steps” to improve the Flushing Bay Promenade, plant trees and “minimize the construction impact.”

According to Cotton, the FAA is in the midst of their environmental review and is developing a draft environmental impact statement, which is projected to be issued around mid-year 2020. Once the FAA submits their draft, they will have a public comment portion of the draft around their third quarter, which is between July and September.

A final environmental impact study by the FAA is expected around their second quarter in 2021, between April and June. After that, Cotton said construction will start “as soon as possible if they approve the current route” (Willets Point to LGA terminals).

When asked whether he understands the concerns raised from community members and Sensible Way to LGA, a coalition of Queens residents and businesses, Cotton said “they’ve had extensive dialogue with the community.”

“In response to the community, we moved the route from the median of the Grand Central Parkway to the northern side of it,” Cotton said. “This is the route that has the minimal amount of impact on the community that it is possible to achieve and still build the AirTrain.”

Cotton added, “We recognize that there will be some impacts [but] we are working very hard to avoid them. But I believe it’s also important to note that, as we have done with the airport itself we will do with the AirTrain, which is to the maximum extent have benefits accrue to the community.”

In January, Bronx Councilman Fernando Cabrera and Manhattan Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, who chairs the Committee on Transportation, led a rally with Queens residents calling for oversight and a ULURP process for the LGA AirTrain in front of City Hall. The councilmen said they planned to hold a public hearing on Jan. 29 with City Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

But, according to a Council spokesperson, “no hearing on the AirTrain was ever scheduled, no date was ever set, nothing was canceled.”

A Council spokesperson mentioned that Council Member Moya sent a letter asking the state Legislature to hold hearings, since the state has jurisdiction over the Port Authority. Moya’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Moya previously told QNS that “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.”

Port Authority Spokesperson Thomas Topousis said that the LGA AirTrain project “is not subject to the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). In AirTrain’s case, the project was approved by a near unanimous vote by the state Legislature, precluding any requirement for ULURP.”

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