THE LAGUARDIA AIRPORT AIRTRAIN PROPOSAL

The LGA AirTrain Project Beginnings

In 2015, amid fierce criticism from transit experts and community members, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) proposed the construction of a LaGuardia Airport (LGA) AirTrain running from LGA to Willets Point. In June, 2018 Assembly Member Jeffrion Aubry of East Elmhurst and Northern Corona introduced legislation that would use eminent domain to alienate parkland in order to construct a LGA AirTrain. The bill passed the state legislature, allowing for an AirTrain to be built on top of the Flushing Bay Promenade, across on Flushing Bay, or on the Grand Central Parkway. 

Port Authority's Preferred Route

In October 2018, the PANYNJ released a Request for Proposals (RFP) for a consultant to spearhead the environmental review process for the LaGuardia Airport Access Improvement Project (LGA AirTrain) under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review process (learn more about NEPA here), overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). PANYNJ selected Ricando as the project lead. 

 

The RFP outlines PANYNJ's preferred alternative: an AirTrain that would run from LGA to Willets Point, span more than a quarter of the Flushing Bay promenade, and connect to the Willets Point 7 Train and Long Island Rail Road station. The RFP includes traffic and ridership studies funded by PANYNJ. In the RFP, PANYNJ asks for the consultant to plan for a one year review process in order to complete construction by 2022. For context, the environmental review process for the JFK AirTrain took over three years to complete. 

The Sensible Way to LGA Coalition

Formed in Fall 2018, the Sensible Way to LGA is a growing coalition of residents, local organizations, and citywide partners who are advocating for a robust and thorough environmental review that considers all alternatives for public transit to LGA evenly. Members include the Ditmars Blvd Block Association, Riverkeeper, Flushing Chamber of Commerce, Jackson Heights Beautification Group, Guardians of Flushing Bay, Reinvent Albany, and Riders Alliance.

The NEPA Process

The project required a federal environmental review process (NEPA) because it uses a Passenger Facility Charge (PFC) to pay for the project. A PFC is a fare tacked onto a passenger’s ticket that pays for airport facility projects. FAA was the lead agency for the environmental review because they are the agency that approves the use of a PFC.

The AirTrain NEPA process includes 5 key components: 1. public scoping period, 2. transit alternatives analysis, 3. draft environmental impact statement, 4. final environmental impact statement, and 5. record of decision.

Scoping Period

After two initial community leaders meetings in April 2019, the environmental review process began on May 3rd, 2019. The initial scoping period ended on June 17th, after a 45 day public comment period and two public meetings. The results of the scoping study, conducted over a 45-period from May to June, 2019 can be found in full here. The study showed serious concern with the proposed project. Of the 414 written and oral comments, only 13% supported the project.

Transit Alternative Analysis

The alternatives screening analysis is the review of all possible transit alternatives (aka, viable transit options to get to LGA) to determine which would be considered in the draft environmental impact statement. All of the project’s transit alternatives were screened out except for a no action alternative (which is required by law) and the proposed LGA AirTrain. See the full presentation from the community leaders meeting here, the alternatives screening analysis slides here, and the final results slides here.

Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS)

The DEIS is the initial release of FAA’s environmental review of the project. It includes a 45-day comment period for the public. The LGA AirTrain DEIS, released in September 2020, continued to push through Port Authority's preferred route: an elevated AirTrain running from Willets Point to LGA.

Submitted Comments

  • Click here to read Guardians of Flushing Bay's comments, with sign ons from local dragon boaters, economic equity organizations in Downtown Flushing, local park users, environmental advocates in Jackson Heights and residents in East Elmhurst.

  • Click here to read Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic's comments submitted on behalf of Riverkeeper, which deftly describe the root problem of the review—it's tailor made to approve the proposed AirTrain.

  • Check out Sensible Way to LGA's comments with over 90 pages of critiques from the local community and park users.

  • Here's an article from Queens Chronicle with our comment highlights.

In addition to our comments, GoFB raised public awareness of the potential use of federal stimulus funds for the project. Click here to see the letter GoFB wrote with support from East Elmhurst and Jackson Heights community members asking NY and NJ Congressional Representatives to refuse Port Authority's request to allot federal stimulus funding to the LGA AirTrain.

Final Environmental Impact Statement

In March 2021, the FAA released the Final Environmental Impact Statement, which only meaningfully evaluated the proposed LGA AirTrain alternative. Check out GoFB’s comprehensive #WrongWayAirTrain Action Guide to see how communities called on FAA and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to demand an LGA AirTrain environmental review do-over.

In Spring 2021, after over a year-long lawsuit led by Riverkeeper against Port Authority for correspondence documents between the agency and FAA, Riverkeeper evidence that Port Authority's initial transit alternative screening criteria were cherry-picked to achieve the construction of the AirTrain. Our communities rallied together to call on Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to take action!

Record of Decision

In June 2021, the FAA publicly delayed its decision on the proposed AirTrain project, stating that they needed more time to review the project in response to congressional and community opposition. On July 20th, the FAA released the Record of Decision (ROD) for the federal actions reviewed in the final Environmental Impact Statement. FAA approved Port Authority's application to construct a $2.05 billion elevated AirTrain that would carry passengers between the Mets-Willets Point subway station at Citi Field and the LaGuardia Airport, consequently taking Flushing Meadows Corona Park parkland and cutting an environmental justice community off from their waterfront park.

GoFB and Partners Sue the FAA

On September 20th, 2021 Guardians of Flushing Bay, Riverkeeper and the Ditmars Blvd Block Association sued the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) alleging that FAA's approval of the LaGuardia AirTrain was based on an unlawfully biased decision-making process. Our coalition is represented by the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic.

All of the transit alternatives—bus line enhancements, subway extensions, LIRR improvements—require an unbiased review alongside the LGA AirTrain proposal. Based on our analysis and bolstered by critiques from FAA and Port Authority's own staff, we have reason to believe that the review process was unlawfully biased. To this end, the lawsuit addresses two complaints:

  1. Alleging that FAA violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by eliminating feasible alternatives from review (like better bus service, ferry service, the N/W line extension, etc).

  2. Challenging FAA's approval of taking parkland for public use while other feasible alternatives are on the table.

#HochulHalt

In October 2021, after increased pressure from the Sensible Way to LGA Coalition, Governor Kathy Hochul requested that Port Authority thoroughly review the AirTrain project. This put a temporary pause on the project and resulted in a voluntary review by Port Authority. While the coalition was grateful for the pause, the voluntary review lacks the same regulatory guardrails as the NEPA process.

Lost in the weeds? Follow along with this infographic below from our friends at Riverkeeper.