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You May Be Able to Hop an AirTrain to LaGuardia by 2022. There’s Just One Catch

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on Monday that his plans for an elevated AirTrain to La Guardia Airport were moving forward, but transportation experts quickly raised concerns about whether it was the right way to ease travel to the airport.

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Emma G. Fitzsimmons
, New York Times

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on Monday that his plans for an elevated AirTrain to La Guardia Airport were moving forward, but transportation experts quickly raised concerns about whether it was the right way to ease travel to the airport.

Cuomo said the AirTrain would offer a 30-minute trip to La Guardia from Midtown Manhattan and would open by 2022.

There was just one catch: Riders would first have to schlep past the airport, east to Citi Field — the home of the New York Mets — to catch the AirTrain and then backtrack. The circuitous route was met with ridicule on social media.

The current trek to La Guardia is notoriously unpleasant. It usually involves a taxi ride or bus trip through the clogged roadways near the waterfront airfield. For decades, elected officials have debated the merits of building a train link to the airport, but the logistics and costs were daunting.

Enter Cuomo, a Democrat who has jump-started a dizzying array of infrastructure projects in the region and proposed the AirTrain three years ago. After state lawmakers passed legislation this month allowing the state to use eminent domain for the project, officials are moving forward with an environmental study for the AirTrain.

“How can you not have a rail train to the city from a New York airport?” Cuomo said before signing the legislation. “I mean, it’s just incomprehensible.”

The La Guardia AirTrain, which could cost more than $1.5 billion, is part of Cuomo’s broader plans to improve the airport, a dingy complex that Vice President Joe Biden famously likened to an airport “in a third world country.” Cuomo hopes to begin construction on the AirTrain in 2020.

But transit experts have criticized the route and Cuomo’s pledge that it would help riders get to the airport in 30 minutes or less. Cuomo said that it would take 16 minutes to travel on the Long Island Rail Road from Manhattan to the Willets Point station in Queens, near Citi Field, and six minutes on the AirTrain from Willets Point to the airport. The AirTrain would run every four minutes.

The estimate does not take into account the time spent waiting on the platform between trains, said Yonah Freemark, a doctoral student in city planning at MIT who runs a transportation website. Using the AirTrain could actually take longer than existing express buses, Freemark said.

“I think it’s a 30-minute or less trip for the very few number of people who get to Willets Point right as an LIRR train is arriving,” Freemark said.

Riders could also take the No. 7 subway line to the Mets-Willets Point station to catch the AirTrain, though that option could take longer because local trains make many stops.

The Long Island Rail Road could increase train service to the Willets Point station, on the Port Washington line, said Jon Weinstein, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state-controlled agency that oversees the commuter railroad and the subway.

Expansion projects will allow the railroad “to meet growing travel needs and provide more service to key hubs,” including Willets Point and La Guardia, Weinstein said in a statement.

The authority is building a new train station under Grand Central Terminal and a tunnel connecting it to the Long Island Rail Road, which right now runs to Pennsylvania Station. Costs for the project, which is known as East Side Access and is expected to open in 2022, have ballooned to more than $11 billion. Cuomo suggested riders could reach the AirTrain using the new route from Grand Central Terminal.

Still, Cuomo’s focus on the AirTrain proposal has frustrated experts who argue it should not be a top priority when the region’s transit network is in crisis, from the subways to commuter railroads. Kenneth Lipper, a former Port Authority board member appointed by Cuomo, said the AirTrain was among the “most ill-conceived projects” that he’s experienced in government. Last week, state lawmakers approved the AirTrain legislation on the final day of the session. The law allows the state to acquire public land along the Grand Central Parkway and the No. 7 line. It appears Cuomo liked the route because it did not require taking private property.

Seth Stein, a spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio, said the mayor wants to make sure that “the interests of the community are respected, including protecting parkland. This will remain our top priority as the project advances.”

The cost of the AirTrain has nearly tripled, from $450 million when Cuomo proposed the idea in 2015. (The Port Authority’s capital plan last year included about $1.5 billion for the AirTrain.) And some transit advocates have criticized Cuomo for making sure that the AirTrain bill was approved as legislation to reauthorize speed safety cameras at New York City schools languished.

The two other major airports in the region — Kennedy International Airport and Newark Liberty International Airport — both have AirTrains, though Newark’s train is known for being chronically unreliable.

Freemark said past proposals for a train to La Guardia Airport could benefit more riders, including a plan in the early 2000s to extend the N subway line in Queens to the airport.

“It’s disappointing,” he said, “that we haven’t had a public conversation to discuss whether or not this is the right project.”

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