Port Authority boss asserts need for LGA AirTrain despite backlash and COVID-19

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Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton says the pandemic has not impacted the need for the LaGuardia AirTrain.

As COVID-19 continues to loom as a threat, albeit below a 1% infection rate, Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton says the AirTrain is critical for New York’s to make a full economic and environmental rebound.

According to Cotton, the route from Willets Point Station on the Long Island Rail Road will track northward on the eastern side of the Grand Central Parkway to avoid disturbing local residents who have spoken out against the project.

While the AirTrain proposal is still under federal environmental review, Cotton believes that the project is essential at this time – considering fewer travelers through New York airports – is to mitigate congestion on roadways with LaGuardia being the only air hub in the northeast to not have any mass transit access.

“While we’re in the COVID-19 period, travel will come back, the congestion will come back and the pollution will come back,” Cotton said. “It is a route that has no takings of private property and no construction in built up areas either residential or commercial… Until three weeks ago, the route of the AirTrain from the airport to Willets Point was the route that had been determined based on extensive engineering studies, consultant studies, consultation with the community carried out by the Port Authority… The Federal Aviation Administration agreed with our assessment that the alignment – the route we have proposed – should be the preferred alternative.”

Despite the potential to carry 6 to 10 million riders per year free of emissions, communities in East Elmhurst and the surrounding neighborhoods have been vocal in their opposition to the project for the potential impact it would have on property values and quality of life, their ranks even include Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“The community surrounding LaGuardia was among the hardest hit by COVID-19, and many of its residents are now facing eviction or other serious economic consequences of the pandemic. These families have been crying out for relief for months. While state and local funding is desperately needed in the next COVID-19 relief package, it would be the ultimate insult to finally send aid to this community in the form of a project that they firmly oppose and that could further jeopardize their health and safety,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a July statement. “The proposed Willis Point route is likely to lead to overcrowding on the 7 train, a concern the community has raised for years but which has gained additional urgency in a post-COVID-19 era. There are also valid ecological concerns about the construction through park and marshland that this route would require. Most importantly, however, is the general disregard for community input. Over half of the public comments submitted to this project opposed the AirTrain and yet this majority was utterly disregarded. “

In this July statement, Ocasio-Cortez concluded by saying the PANYNJ should not be granted federal COVID-19 aid for the AirTrain project.

The original goal to break ground by 2021 may end up being more fluid as Cotton claims PANYNJ the completion and accessibility of Terminal B will hinge on their being some form of rail transportation to the $3 billion project which is also dependent on the federal government providing funds through a COVID-19 stimulus package. 

“We are not going to leave these airport projects unfinished and that includes these two AirTrains,” Cotton said, referencing the rebuild of those taking travelers to and from Newark Airport.

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