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LaGuardia Airport construction explained: Renovation plans, timeline, funding and more

Construction at LaGuardia Airport, seen on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017, where a new traffic pattern began, according to the Port Authority. / Jeremy Bales

First opened in 1939 in the northernmost section of East Elmhurst, Queens, LaGuardia is ranked as the 21st busiest airport in the country, per the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

In 2017, over 29.5 million travelers walked through its terminals. LaGuardia provides nonstop service to 68 destinations via 11 airlines, which use 75 gates spread across four terminals. About 4 million passengers use the airport to connect to other flights.

More than 7,500 tons of cargo and up to 1,000 tons of mail pass through the airport each year. 

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Yet the airport has garnered a reputation for being shabby and ill-equipped to handle the number of passengers that rely on it.

In June 2016, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo unveiled plans to completely renovate the troubled airport, including a brand-new Central Terminal Building. 

How LaGuardia came to be known as a 'Third World country'

Today’s LaGuardia has been built up over decades to meet increased demand. Marine Air Terminal, known as Terminal A, was built in 1939. 

Terminal B, or the Central Terminal Building, opened 25 years later, in 1964. The terminal serves as the airport’s nexus and handles the majority of its passengers. 

Terminal D opened in 1983, with Terminal C following in 1992.

Once billed as the “air gateway to America,” Terminal B has fallen into such disrepair that former Vice President Joe Biden once referred to it as a “Third World country.” Now significantly outdated, LaGuardia has been surpassed in usage by both Newark and Kennedy airports.

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LaGuardia’s isolated terminals, a product of “sporadic and piecemeal development,” hinders plane movement, which leads to gate delays and significantly dampens the commuter experience, officials say.

Plans for rebuilding

Over the next several years, LaGuardia Airport will be completely rebuilt under a plan from Cuomo and his Airport Advisory Panel.

The governor pushed to build a Central Terminal Building with a “world-class” main entrance, more mass transit connections and a better utilization of LaGuardia’s relatively small real estate to the tune of an estimated $8 billion.

The project will link all four terminals through one new facility that will be built 600 feet closer to the adjacent Grand Central Parkway. Pushing the airport toward the highway will make way for 2 miles of aircraft taxiways to improve plane movement, which would then reduce delays, according to the governor.

To support the shift, a new roadway network is being built along with a 3,000-car parking garage, known as the West Parking Garage.

An AirTrain from the Willets Point 7 train station, as well as ferry service to the Marine Air Terminal, were proposed to increase mass transit options. While announcing new private investments toward the project on Aug. 8, 2017, Cuomo emphasized the importance of linking LaGuardia to the subway through an AirTrain system.

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“There’s no airport that works in a metropolitan area that doesn’t have a one-seat ride to the airport,” he said.

On Nov. 16, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey's board approved a $55 million spending budget for the second phase of development for the AirTrain.

Although critics have speculated as to whether an AirTrain would actually provide a faster trip to the airport, Port Authority's executive director, Rick Cotton, defended the project.

"There is no rail access whatsoever, subway or otherwise, to LaGuardia. It is the only major airport on the East Coast that does not have rail access," he told reporters after the board meeting. 

Under the new $75 million framework, the AirTrain will reduce transportation time to a half-hour between midtown and LaGuardia, Cotton said. 

This estimate was a little too good to be true for some transit advocates. Yonah Freemark, a transportation blogger, argued that the AirTrain would make the commute to the airport slower than taking the existing subway. The AirTrain will also be unable to serve Long Islanders, since its current blueprint does not provide access via the Long Island Rail Road.

"The project is poorly designed - it will carry passengers in the wrong direction, doing little to reduce travel times, and fail to connect them to most subway lines and commuter rail routes," Freemark said.

Although an exact price tag for the AirTrain has not been provided yet, the entire project will cost around $1 billion, as estimated by Port Authority's capital program. The next planning phase will include fine-tuning the details regarding costs, routes and ridership, Cotton added.

Timeline and funding

The new LaGuardia's $8 billion price tag is being funded by both private and public dollars, with 75 percent coming from private sources, according to Cuomo.

The first half of the project will cost $4 billion through what is considered the largest public-private partnership for infrastructure in the United States, the governor said, and consists of replacing Terminal B, a new 1.3 million-square-foot building with 35 gates.

In August 2017, Magic Johnson Enterprises and Loop Capital, which together make up JLC Infrastructure, announced a $10 million equity investment with LaGuardia Gateway Partners, the consortium of developers leading the rebuild.

Ground broke on the project in June 2016. The governor’s office estimated that the facility will be open to the public in 2019 with the project completed by 2021.

The second half of the project will involve redeveloping and connecting the Delta-operated terminals C and D to the airport. That work, which is expected to be done by 2026, is estimated to cost $4 billion and will be financed primarily through Delta, with the Port Authority contributing $600 million. 

The renovation will include four concourses with 37 gates, and is considered the largest airport investment in the company's history, Delta CEO Edward Bastian said.

Port Authority money will go toward building new supporting infrastructure around Delta’s terminals, like ramps, an electrical substation and connecting roadways.

Construction and traffic

Terminal B continues to take shape as crews install decking on the interior levels and foundation work for the connector to the parking garage is underway. The steel framework of the new terminal was completed in March 2018.

The new West Parking Garage opened in February 2018. The seven-level garage offers 3,100 public parking spaces and will connect with Terminal B when the facility opens. In conjunction with the garage's opening, LaGuardia Airport launched a website where travelers can pre-book discounted parking that guarantees a spot ahead of time.

Six airlines at LaGuardia shifted to new terminal locations in December 2017, as part of the ongoing construction project, the Port Authority said. The relocations include:

-- JetBlue and Alaska Airlines moved from Terminal B to the Marine Air Terminal, also called Terminal A. 

-- American Airlines moved from Terminal C to Terminal B. 

-- The Delta Shuttle consolidated into Terminal C. 

-- Frontier Airlines relocated its departures to Terminal C and its arrivals to Terminal D.

-- Spirit Airlines moved its departures to Terminal C and its arrivals to Terminal D.

A new traffic pattern for entering the airport was set up in August 2017.

Exit 7 on the westbound side of the Grand Central Parkway no longer provides direct access to Terminal B, the Port Authority said. A new Exit 6 provides access to Terminal B, while Exit 7 provides access to Terminals C and D, according to the agency.

Exit 5 continues to provide access to the long-term parking lot, the Port Authority said.

In August 2016, the Transportation Security Administration began advising passengers flying out of LaGuardia to arrive at least 2 1/2 hours before their departure after the administration said it had seen a rise in delays due to the airport’s reconstruction.

LaGuardia Gateway Partners said it would closely monitor traffic around the airport, which is primarily accessed via car.

With amNY.com staff and Newsday