There is more to the June 6-7 Federal Aviation Administration public hearing for the Port Authority’s proposed LaGuardia Air Train Environmental Impact Statement.
I previously wrote that the anticipated final potential cost for La Guardia Air Train could end up several hundred million dollars above Gov. Cuomo’s original 2014 estimated figure of $450 million. I also predicted that the promised completion date by 2019 was unrealistic. Both have proven to be true.
The original Port Authority 2017-2026 capital budget plan lists this project at $1 billion. It was subsequently revised to $1.5 billion. Costs will be further refined as the project progresses through the environmental review process, preliminary and final design, award of construction contracts followed by change orders to the base contracts during construction due to last-minute changes in scope or unforeseen site conditions.
Five years have passed with little progress to date. There are no completed environmental documents or any design and engineering efforts to validate construction costs. Port Washington branch LIRR riders have good reason to be concerned about service changes which may be coming. More time will be needed to look at new concepts of building over the Flushing Bay Promenade or Flushing Bay. Using one of these ideas vs. the original Grand Central Parkway median option could add several hundred million to construction costs.
NYC is spending $200 million on a clean-up project to bring back wetlands on the shore and upgrade the Flushing Bay sewer system. Much of this work will be performed on the same waterfront shoreline as the proposed LaGuardia Air Train. How much of this environmental remediation work will have to be repeated due to LaGuardia Air Train construction? Are the two projects compatible? Will taxpayers be stuck paying twice for the same work?
Cuomo’s belief that this will provide a one-seat ride to and from LaGuardia Airport isn’t born out by the facts. There will be significant conflicts at both the Mets Willets Point subway and LIRR stations. Why would travelers with luggage and those with children attempt to squeeze in on already packed rush hour No. 7 subway and Port Washington branch LIRR trains?
Cuomo wants frequent direct LIRR service between Penn Station, Grand Central Terminal and Mets Willets Point station. This will require six trains per hour in each direction to support 10-minute head ways. It is needed to fulfill his promised 30-minute travel time from LaGuardia Airport to Midtown Manhattan. Even with implementation of Positive Train Control, it may not be possible for the Port Washington LIRR branch to accommodate these additional rush hour trains.
In 2014, he promised that service would be up and running within five years by 2019. Last year he said by 2021. This date is unrealistic as completion of the environmental review will not occur until 2020. This will be followed by preliminary and final design and engineering which may require several more years. Don’t be surprised if construction begins in 2023 and is completed by end of 2026. You may not reach Manhattan via the Air Train/LIRR or NYC Transit No. 7 subway connection until 2027.
There is no room to run additional trains in or out of Penn Station during rush hours via the East River tunnels with connections via the Port Washington LIRR branch. This conflicts with Cuomo’s promise to provide frequent service between Penn Station and Mets Willets Point LIRR Station. What about service from Grand Central Terminal once LIRR East Side Access is achieved by 2023? There is no Penn Station platform capacity to accommodate any additional rush hour trains. If one of the four tunnels is temporarily out of service, the result is numerous delays and cancellation of trains.
Communication Based Train Control for the Flushing No. 7 subway starting in December 2018 (original completion date was October 2016) only resulted in increasing the number of trains per hour from 27 to 29 during peak periods. NYC Transit no longer has any other opportunity for increasing rush hour capacity.
A one-seat ride could be accomplished by extending the N and W subway lines from the Astoria/Ditmars Boulevard station to LaGuardia Airport. This previously died due to local community opposition.
To build a train to the plane within five years for $1.5 billion is a planner’s dream. It will be a nightmare for both taxpayers and riders. Count on cost overruns in the hundreds of millions and multi-year delays in construction before reaching beneficial use.
(Larry Penner is a transportation historian, advocate and writer who previously worked 31 years for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for grants supporting billions in capital projects and programs on behalf of the MTA, NYC Transit, LIRR, Metro North, NYC DOT and NICE bus.)