Sunday Train: Cuomo Backs the Worst Air Train to LaGuardia

Back in January, Yonah Freemark covered the news that Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed a genuine clunk of an Air Train to La Guardia airport. The proposal was, as Yonah Freemark put it, "an AirTrain that will save almost no one any time."

Yonah Freemark was not the only transit blogger to give this proposal the thumbs down. Benjamin Kabak writing at 2nd Avenue Sagas pointed out in On the flawed LaGuardia AirTrain proposal and Astoria’s N train that a superior subway connection from LGA to Manhattan had been proposed by Rudy Guliani in the late 90s, but abandoned due to NIMBY opposition.

Benjamin Kabak points to Cap'n Transit Rides Again and the post from May, It's time to extend the N train to LaGuardia, where Cap'n Transit points out that the main "leaders" who fought against the N extension to LaGuardia have now passed from the scene, and now may be the time to test the waters again with the original N-train to LaGuardia plan.

Designing A Bad Alignment By Running Away From Good Ones

Now, why is Andrew Cuomo's alignment so bad?

Note that saying that Cuomo's LGA alignment makes almost all travel times longer does not mean it makes all travel times longer. As Yonah explains:

For people coming from Flushing or Port Washington, directly to the east of the Mets-Willets Point station, travel times would be lower with the AirTrain service. Similarly, people coming from Penn Station and using the LIRR to get to Mets-Willets Point would have a slightly shorter commute to the airport with the AirTrain. However, it is worth emphasizing that LIRR service to this station only occurs on game days; LIRR has not indicated it would provide additional service for the AirTrain, and even if it did, trains would likely only come every half-hour during off-peak periods, suggesting that for most travelers from Penn Station, existing transit services to LaGuardia are faster than the AirTrain would be.

But for basically everyone else ... well, this graph summarizes Yonah's analysis:

Grand Central and connections from there, Penn Station and connections from there ... basically, most everywhere except Flushing is better off with the existing connections.

Now, that does not mean that existing connections are good. It means that, as bad as the existing connections are, the Governor has managed to find an Airtrain alignment that is even worse.

But that is the fact that its an egregiously bad alignment, not the reason that the Governor set forward an alignment that is worse as a transport service than building nothing at all. And that reason? Well, remember the proposed extension of the N subway line to La Guardia that met with NIMBY opposition in Queens. The alignment of the proposed Air Train to La Guardia appears to be focused on avoid NIMBY opposition. As Yonah observes:

Governor Cuomo’s project would not have any of the negative community effects the proposal from fifteen years ago had. Its elevated tracks would be hidden behind a much more noisy and already-existing highway. Moreover, its terminus station at Mets-Willets Point would be surrounded by parking lots and sports facilities.

These attempts to shape a project that does nothing to disturb existing communities, however, has produced a proposal that would be worthless in terms of time savings for people traveling from the airport in almost all directions.

But, what about that N-train "Astoria" extenstion to La Guardia?

This is how Cap'n Transit describe the Astoria extension of the N-line to La Guardia:

Twenty years ago, Astoria leaders blocked a plan to extend the elevated train line that serves their neighborhood. The proposal would have run the trains a few blocks north past their current terminus at Ditmars Boulevard, then east to LaGuardia Airport. In addition to the value of getting airport travelers out of cars and taxis, the line would have served new stops in areas of northern Astoria and Woodside that currently have no subway service. It would also have made better use of the Astoria Line, where trains were often fairly empty just a few stops outside of Midtown.

The point about train capacity is an important one here to add onto why the Governor's plan is such a clear bad choice: there is little spare capacity on the Subway 7-line that the Governor's poorly conceived alignment would primarily rely upon ... given that the Long Island Railroad service past Mets-Willets Point only runs every half hour off-peak, and only stops at Mets-Willets Point on game day.

The N train is an El, with a terminus just before Ditmars Blvd and 31st in Astoria. The second last station is Astoria Blvd just before the El passes over the Grand Central Parkway.

Several alignments were studied for the N extension to La Guardia, with Cap'n Transit's sketch resembling three of them: an El over the Grand Central Parkway from Astoria Blvd station, a subway under Ditmars Blvd, and extending the El to run along 19th Street toward the airport.

Governor Cuomo's plan did not involve an extension of a subway. Turning the 7 to go to La Guardia would take it away from Mets-Willet Point and would take service from its terminus at Flushing Main Street, and the LIRR has not even started its main suburban commuter corridor to Manhattan when it gets to Mets-Willet Point. So rather than an extension, he proposed an "Air Train" ... with a photo-shop portrayal that revealed that there was essentially no thought put into what that would actually entail.

The N train extension faces a similar issue. Taking the existing subway service away from Ditmar Blvd and 31st street does not seem to make much sense. However, the most direct routes from the N train alignment to La Guardia alignment leave the alignment before that terminus. An "Air Train" from the Astoria Blvd Station heading directly along the Grand Central Parkway would be a much more direct route.

What is an Air Train?

Governor Cuomo's office has no idea what an Air Train actually is, as we can see from the photoshop they put together to illustrate their proposal.

One thing an Air Train could be is an Aerobus, an alternative technology that I have covered many years ago in the Sunday Train. An Aeorbus is light rail track laid on top of suspension cable, with the passenger cars suspended below. The reliance on suspension cable gives a system with a less expensive and intrusive guideway than a monorail. Support pylons may be placed over half a kilometer (about 2,000 feet) apart.

The Aerobus technology never successfully launched, but it seems like a reasonable fit to the challenges of taking a fixed guideway AirTrain to La Guardia.

The Aerobus site cites costs of $15m-$30m/mile for the fixed guideway. Now, these figures seem likely to be a bit out of date, as the Aerobus International at present appears to be a shell company for holding the technology patents. However, if they are instead $30m-$60m, that is still quite a bit more affordable on a per mile basis than what the Governor is proposing, at about $450m for what he billed as a 1.5 mile (and appeared to Yonah Freemark to be about 2.3 miles).

Indeed, if the Governor can find $450m for an AirTrain, the per mile cost of an Aerobus system would be low enough to run the La Guardia Air Train from an origin at Queensboro Plaza (7, N, Q subways) to Queen's Plaza (E, M, R subways), running express above the LIRR corridor to Woodside (LIRR, 7), over the 7 El to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, then the Brooklyn Queens Expressway E to the Grand Central Parkway and La Guardia.

Criticisms of Having an Air Train At All

Yonah Freemark ended his January consideration of the La Guardia Air Train proposal by questioning the priority of an Air Train at all:

But even if the AirTrain to LaGuardia were magically very effective at reducing travel times, it should not be the New York region’s transit priority. The second phase of the Second Avenue Subway, which would extend from 96th Street to 125th Street the line that is currently under construction, is expected to attract 100,000 riders a day. Yet it lacks committed funding sources. Extended Subway lines in the outer boroughs, such as a Nostrand Avenue Subway or the Triboro-RX, are completely off the political radar, despite the fact that they would serve hundreds of thousands of people daily, reduce travel times significantly, and do plenty to improve quality of life in poor and working class neighborhoods. Instead we’re talking about building a train to the airport.

The fact is that the governor of New York State, like most people in elected office, doesn’t take transit much and certainly isn’t reliant on it; to put matters bluntly, in a transit-oriented city like New York, he’s a member of the economic and social elite. This elite is unprepared to take advantage (or, in many cases, even know about) bus services that exist, and can only envision taking a train in one circumstance: When traveling to and from the airport. For him, a train to the airport is a must, even if it doesn’t actually improve transportation objectives and even if it isn’t the top priority compared to other options in a constrained spending environment.

That constrained spending environment and lower priority for having an Air Train would justify using the relatively low cost of an Aerobus elevated alignment to cut the budget rather than to stretch the length, and run the AirTrain from Astoria Station on the N subway along the Grand Central Parkway to La Guardia. This would seem like the approach most likely to allow an Air Train to be funded using airport access funding, without tapping into local transport funding.

Criticisms of Having La Guardia At All

Of course, all of this assumes that New York ought to keep La Guardia airport. But back in 2009, Freakonomics posted a piece, Want to Fix New York Air Congestion? Shut Down LaGuardia.

Each airport has its airspace extending vertically above it in a cylinder, and because the three large airports serving New York City are so relatively close to one another, freakonomics reports that pilots must fly "needlessly complex" flight paths to "thread the needle". Shut down one of the three, and the other two would operate more freely. And since La Guardia is the one handling the least air traffic, it is the most reasonable target.

That would solve the AirTrain problem at a stroke, since both JFK and Newark already have AirTrain connections. I have used the Newark Airport AirTrain connection, in my first flight to Beijing last year, and it worked quite effectively in taking me from the dive motel I was staying at in New Brunswick (while finishing processing of my visa) to my flight.

So there's a fix. A Freakonomics observed in 2009:

But there’s a problem: LaGuardia is the favored airport of the people with the most political power in New York, since it is a very short ride from Manhattan. So it’s unlikely to happen, at least anytime soon. But if it did, my new pilot friend insisted, New York air travel would move from nightmare to dream.

Conclusions and Considerations

So, what do you reckon? Do you prefer Governor Cuomo's useless waste of $450m (though since there is not likely any detailed budgeting, its more likely a useless waste of $600m-$800m)? Cap'n Transit's extensions of the N train subway/El? An AirTrain from Queens Plaza? An AirTrain from the N subway station at Astoria?

Or eliminating the problem by shutting La Guardia down altogether?

Drop in your preferred solution in the comments ... or, as always, whatever other issue you would like to raise about sustainable transport and energy.





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