Regional Plan Association Testimony to the Federal Aviation Administration on the LaGuardia Access Improvement Project

Good evening. Thank you for the opportunity to comment on this important project. My name is Marcel Negret, and I am a Senior Planner at the Regional Plan Association. RPA is an urban planning research and advocacy organization working to improve the New York metropolitan region’s economic health, environmental sustainability and quality of life.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) is seeking to provide a time-certain transportation option for air passenger and employee access to LaGuardia airport. The Authority’s preferred alternative is for an elevated AirTran to operate between the Airport and a transfer station at Willets Point. The proposed AirTrain system would include two on-airport stations and a terminus station at Willets Point providing connections to the Mets-Willets Point stations of the LIRR Port Washington Branch and the NYCT Flushing No. 7 subway line.

An AirTrain connection from LaGuardia to Willets Point would provide more convenient and reliable access to the airport for passengers and employees. The alignment would leverage the substantial public investment in East Side Access by connecting passengers to Midtown Manhattan via the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR). By connecting to mass transit services and not relying on the existing roadway network, the alignment would remove uncertainty around expected ground travel time. Because of congestion, travel times are unpredictable for automobiles, taxis, and buses and there is great variation between peak and non-peak periods of the day.[1] Reliable and predictable ground transportation is crucial for air travelers; the preferred alignment would offer such a service.

While RPA in 2011 recommended a more direct AirTrain alternative with a terminal at the LIRR Woodside station, connecting to all 11 branches and the #7 train, we recognize that an AirTrain to Willets Point could still substantially improve access to LaGuardia if done properly and could be achieved at a lower cost than the Woodside option. In addition, the PANYNJ preferred alignment to Willets Point could allow the airport to expand its footprint, making space for airport back office and supportive uses such as rental car service, hotels, business/conference centers and other amenities for air passengers, something that is not possible with any other alternative. In the long-term, there might also be the potential to redevelop the space over the Flushing Line subway yards — expanding the footprint of the site.

To ensure that the new AirTrain is positioned to be competitive with other transportation alternatives (primarily automobiles, the dominant mode) several important factors should be considered. As long as the following criteria are met and depending on a satisfactory EIS outcome, RPA supports the Authority’s preferred alignment as we believe it would lead to accomplishing the project goals and developing the necessary infrastructure in a thoughtful way:

  1. In order minimize total travel time to midtown Manhattan, sufficient investment in the LIRR Port Washington branch should be made to guarantee reliability and a train frequency of at least four trains per hour.[2] Similarly, fare control between the two transit systems and the Willets point terminal design should ease transfer between the AirTrain and LIRR. This will ensure that the passenger experience is convenient, easily navigable, and timely.

  2. While current demand may not be sufficient for pedestrian access to the off-airport station, RPA believes that drop-offs and future use, especially as Willets Point develops, need to be considered. Such an analysis will likely support pedestrian access at the terminal, as well as positioning the station in a way that provides good access for riders that might use the #7 for local Queens-based destinations.

  3. The chosen solution should ensure that the project is designed with alignments (including the location of the operations facility), technology, power, and rolling stock requirements that would not preclude future expansions, including an additional off-airport station and a potential connection with the JFK AirTrain. RPA believes that the AirTrain alignment should go directly above the LIRR station and orient the line to allow future extension further east to the Van Wyck Expressway (approximately 1,500 ft away from the terminal), where it then could be connected with the existing Jamaica AirTrain.

  4. The preferred alignment would be constructed on city park property along a waterfront promenade and critical portions of the largest city owned marina. Environmental and local organizations have expressed concerns about the project minimizing the quality of the park and its useful space. The scope of work should include a robust set of park improvements to ensure waterfront access, and active recreation uses including human powered boating continue to operate in the park and bay. The particular circumstances of this project seem to justify the preferred alignment; however, this should not be used as a precedent for future parkland alienation.

  5. The Authority’s preferred alignment is in the 100-year floodplain and could become more vulnerable to frequent coastal flooding due to sea level rise and increased storms in the future. In addition, the train stations and their surrounding areas are already experiencing ground subsidence. The scope of the EIS should evaluate mitigation measures that would use a combination of innovative green and grey resiliency measures along the waterfront esplanade, marina, piers, recently enhanced wetlands, and surrounding areas. If the analysis demonstrates that these measures would be effective, their implementation should be enforced through a binding agreement.

LaGuardia airport is a key asset for the region. We appreciate the efforts made by the Federal Aviation Administration and Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to improve access to this important resource.

 

[1] PANYNJ local origins/destinations of LGA passengers and employees. Travel time from Times Square to LGA varies widely by day, and typically ranges between 35 and 80 minutes, which is a range of 45 minutes. Additionally, on some dates in 2015, 2016, and 2017, the time was greater than 100 minutes. These plots indicate that travel time has increased from year to year, which is a trend that will likely continue.

[2] According to Appendix G of the PANYNJ Ground Access Mode Choice Model, a frequency of at least four trains an hour via the LIRR Port Washington branch is needed to meet travel and wait time assumptions