Port Authority defends rising LGA AirTrain cost, now at $2.05 billion

The AirTrain terminal in Willets Point, Queen, as shown in a rendering.
The AirTrain terminal in Willets Point, Queen, as shown in a rendering. Photo Credit: Hulu/Barbara Nitke

The Port Authority on Thursday defended the rising cost of the proposed LaGuardia AirTrain, arguing that it is an important project to get people out of cars.

The authority revealed the AirTrain’s anticipated cost has hit $2.05 billion when the $390 million increase was included in a capital plan amendment presented to the board Thursday. The project, which would connect the Willets Point Long Island Rail Road and  No. 7 subway train to the Queens airport, was initially priced at $450 million in 2014. In all, the estimated cost of the 2-mile stretch of monorail has since jumped 356%. 

The capital plan amendment also included $1.64 billion for a new AirTrain at Newark, which is also expected to cost a total of $2.05 billion.

The board weighed the capital changes alongside a sweeping proposal to increase fares and tolls on PA bridges and PATH in addition to imposing new airport travel fees.

“These are expensive projects. There’s no question. But if we are to reap the benefits of mass transit, we have to provide mass transit that is attractive to individual travelers and their families,” said Rick Cotton, the executive director at the Port Authority, without explaining the rise in cost. “Experience shows that rail mass transit is the most attractive alternative, and we’re committed to provided that.”

The PA stressed that 94% of the amendment will be covered by the PA’s own revenue, but the rising cost of the LGA AirTrain, a key priority for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, alarmed outsiders who already felt the project was a bad idea. Transportation blogger Yonah Freemark and others have pointed out that the LIRR Port Washington branch that includes the Willets Point stop is not accessible to the rest of the LIRR network, meaning it has limited use to Long Islanders.

The Port Authority boasts that the AirTrain would create a 30-minute trip from midtown to LaGuardia. But City Comptroller Scott Stringer recently pointed out that off-peak LIRR service currently stops at Mets-Willets Point every half-hour, which suggests that this estimate is unrealistic under current service levels, unless a trip is timed perfectly.

After a board meeting Thursday, Cotton said he believes the AirTrain will “entice, get people out of their cars and provide a capability to get both from Midtown Manhattan to the airport in under a half an hour and to also have easy access from the entire Long Island Rail Road network.”

The PA, as part of its fare and toll hikes, also proposed a “ground transportation access fee” for taxis and e-hail companies like Uber and Lyft, modeled after the charges at the Los Angeles International Airport. Under the proposal, taxis would be charged $4 for a pickup, while e-hails would be charged $4 for pickups and $4 for drops. The idea has drawn the ire from drivers already grappling with the economic crisis plaguing the taxi and e-hail industry.

“That’s now going to bring down the ridership at the airport — the only other source for income for [taxi drivers outside Manhattan],” Bhairavi Desai, the founding member of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, said during the meeting. “We’re at a point where people just cannot afford to lose even one more fare.”

Cotton, in an unusual response to public comment, promised to listen to drivers.

“This is a proposal. We are listening. We respect the views,” said Cotton. “We’d welcome the opportunity to meet.”