LaGuardia Airport is New York’s embarrassing back door.
Its corridors are low and claustrophobic; it’s hard to find more than a plastic sandwich to eat after security; and, of course, it takes a nightmare of traffic or bus transfers to get there. And once you do, you’re liable to be delayed.
Railroad booster and Vice President Joe Biden famously captured the malaise in 2014 when he likened travelling through the airport to being in a third-world country.
Last summer, Gov. Andrew Cuomo laid out a plan for a major overhaul of the airport, and in March the Port Authority, which operates the airport, approved a $4 billion overhaul, most of it paid for by private firms, with construction scheduled to start this year and be completed in 2021.
In the end, of course, an airport is still just an airport.
Paved a parking lot, put up an airport
LaGuardia Airport is a little over a tenth of the size of its neighbor JFK, perched between Queens and the Bronx, one of its runways peeking out toward Rikers Island.
The redevelopment — a public-private partnership — plans to find a little extra space by moving the central terminal closer to the Grand Central Parkway, providing extra room for planes to maneuver and avoid stuck-on-tarmac delays while waiting for gates to free up.
The redesign would make more gates usable to larger, modern planes, which are now constrained by the cramped quarters. After completion, the new LaGuardia would be able to accommodate four million additional passengers annually.
The passenger experience would include more pleasant amenities, not a particularly difficult bar to reach. Whereas 90 percent of concessions are now located before you get to security, the opposite would be true after the overhaul. And the Port Authority representatives promised that driving to the airport would be easier due to a dedicated approach for high occupancy vehicles.
PowerPoint photos of a blue skies, airy elegant waiting areas, and light traffic painted a picture of what the Port Authority hopes to bring to fruition in the next few years.
If everything goes according to plan, flights shouldn’t be any more delayed than they usually are during construction, though the team warned that there would be a lot of activity in a confined area, which would certainly get confusing — what with demolished and temporary roadways, new parking lots, shifting signage. Duly noted.
What's still to come
Perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle for a revitalized LaGuardia is its connections to the city via mass transit.
The Cuomo plan calls for an AirTrain connecting with both the subway and the LIRR near Citi Field in Queens — that project, which isn't even a particularly direct link, is still wading through funding questions, environmental reviews, and feasibility studies.
But the Port Authority team was hopeful the city and state could make it happen, and the airport redesign will take into account the potential train, so that planners can plug it into the new airport if the questions are cleared up, perhaps two years from now.
We’re also in a holding pattern on longer flights to and from LaGuardia, which is bound by the so-called “perimeter rule” preventing flights over a 1,500-mile radius. The rule was initially instated to boost JFK, which no longer needs the support.
The Port Authority board can vote to modify or lift the rule, allowing for flights to the West Coast and beyond which could make the airport more useful to passengers and attractive to airlines. A study currently being conducted on the issue will be reporting back this summer. Then the politicking will begin — between rival airlines, locals worried about more congestion, and those who don't want to lose regional flights around the New York area.
And of course, there are always the unseen delays and shifting (bloating) of costs endemic to large projects such as this one, even if the builders are supposed to be responsible for overruns.
The Port Authority plans to develop a website to keep the public up to date on the progress of construction. In the end, that will be a document of planners and officials’ attempts to fix the unbearable entrance to the city that never sleeps.
Here’s hoping the process is less onerous than your typical three-hour-delay at LGA. It could almost make a train lover out of you.
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