Independent panel recommends improved bus service to LaGuardia Airport in lieu of proposed AirTrain

All Aboard?

Independent panel recommends improved bus service to LaGuardia Airport in lieu of proposed AirTrain

(CurAke79/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0)

A three-member independent panel of expert transportation leaders has recommended that LaGuardia Airport not build its long-anticipated AirTrain. Today, The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey released “Options for Mass Transit Solutions to LGA,” a lengthy report from the independent panel, assembled in late 2021 at the request of Governor Kathy Hochul, that recommends improving existing bus routes to LaGuardia and adding new ones.

The idea to have a light rail system connecting LaGuardia airport to Willets Point in Queens has been floated around for years. Several of the initial plans for the recently revamped-LaGuardia Airport included the means of transportation in early design renderings. Former New York governor Andrew Cuomo received federal approval for the $2.1 billion plan in June 2021, but his successor Governor Hochul hit pause the project and requested a panel look into it.

If realized, the AirTrain would have connected to the 7 subway line and the Long Island Rail Road, promising riders an easy trip into Midtown Manhattan that would take less than 30 minutes.

The panel of experts who provided the recommendations consisted of Mike Brown, former commissioner of Transport for London and former Managing Director of Heathrow Airport; Janette Sadik-Khan, principal at Bloomberg Associates and former Commissioner of the NYC Department of Transportation; and Phillip A. Washington, CEO of Denver International Airport and former CEO of Los Angeles Metro. The panel also worked with consultants, namely engineering firms, including Bechtel, WSP, Nelson\Nygaard, Foursquare ITP, and Ramboll on the analysis.

Following the announcement today Hochul said in a statement: “New Yorkers deserve world-class transportation to world-class airports. Shortly after taking office, I asked the Port Authority to thoroughly examine mass transit solutions for LaGuardia Airport that would reduce car traffic and increase connectivity, while meeting the demand of our customers. I am grateful to the expert panel, the technical consultants, and the Port Authority for providing a clear, cost-effective path forward with an emissions-free transit solution for customers. I accept the recommendations of this report, and I look forward to its immediate implementation by the Port Authority in close coordination with our partners at the MTA, in the City of New York and the federal government.”

In the report, the panel highlighted its preference for a “one-seat ride via subway,” saying: “We are unanimous in our opinion that a one-seat ride via subway from the west is the optimal way to achieve the best mass transportation connection to LaGuardia Airport. In our professional experience, a one-seat ride has been the most successful in encouraging a shift to public transit from other transportation modes.”

However, through its analysis the panel found it would not be feasible to construct a train line in the area that would be compliant with FAA regulations. It said further field surveys and geotechnical studies would need to be conducted to determine whether a subway could be built in a location south of the runway.

The cost of the project is also a prohibitive factor. A light rail system would cost between $2.4 billion and $6.2 billion, while bus improvements would be under $500 million.

Given these challenges and limitations, the panel recommended its bus-centric plan. Improvements to the existing MTA Q70 LaGuardia Link bus, which runs on a continuous loop connecting to the Jackson Heights subway to Woodside subway and LIRR station to the airport terminals, are part of this effort, including establishing signal priority for the buses along the primary corridors of its route, Roosevelt Avenue and Broadway. It also proposes a mile-long bus lane constructed along the shoulder of the northbound Brooklyn-Queens Expressway between Northern Boulevard and Astoria Boulevard. These efforts would increase the speed, efficiency, and reliability of the buses. Other upgrades to this existing infrastructure would add a dedicated bus pick-up and drop-off area near Terminal C to reduce traffic at the airport’s entrance/exit and bring in additional signage at the subway and train stations promoting bus access.

In its other bus improvement plan, the panel has recommended starting a new non-stop shuttle service between the airport and the Astoria-Ditmars Boulevard subway stop on the N and W lines. All of the buses in this new fleet would be fully electric and they too would run in dedicated bus lanes with signal priority along 31st Street and 19th Avenue. According to the report this project would also involve improving ADA accessibility at the Astoria-Ditmars Boulevard station.

“At the start of this process, the Port Authority committed to conduct a fair, thorough, and impartial evaluation of mass transit solutions to LaGuardia Airport,” said Executive Director of the Port Authority Rick Cotton in a press release. “We assembled a team of top-quality engineering and transportation firms to conduct the study, and appointed an outside panel of world-class transportation leaders to deliver independent recommendations. That report is now complete, and the panel has delivered its recommendations. We thank Mike Brown, Janette Sadik-Khan, and Phil Washington for their tireless efforts and thoughtful recommendations.”