On Tuesday, Andrew Cuomo proposed a new signature initiative: a $450 million AirTrain to LaGuardia, connecting to the Mets’ stadium on both the 7 train and the LIRR. The proposal has practically no merit even as an airport connector: Ben Kabak and Yonah Freemark both note, with helpful graphics, that the connection is so circuitous it’d be slower than the existing bus-subway options to nearly every destination, including everywhere in Manhattan. Capital New York notes that in general, transit activist reactions to the plan were cold, precisely because it’s such bad transit.
The interesting aspect of this is about the counter-criticism, and the discussion it led to. (In contrast, Cuomo’s general hostility to transit and intercity rail is not news, and it’s unlikely someone with such a history could come up with cost-effective transit plans.) The main reaction to the criticism is not “where would you spend $450 million instead?”. That question has a few answers, all of which are boring: the general MTA capital plan, or, if the money is to go to expansion, Second Avenue Subway Phase 2, the next item on the city’s transit agenda now that Phase 1 is nearing completion.
Instead, the main reaction is “how would you connect to LaGuardia instead?”. That question, too, has a definite answer, which Ben talked about in his post, and which I pointed out in my post about airport connectors last year: an extension of the N to the east, with several stops (for example, at Steinway and Hazen) to serve more of Astoria and not just airport riders. The N takes a direct route to Manhattan, passing through or next to the top areas for LaGuardia passengers, as seen in the second map here. But even that is the wrong question. There are probably more cost-effective subway extensions in New York, having nothing to do with LaGuardia; I have to say probably, since at no point has the MTA proposed large enough a slate of possible extensions that we can compare projected costs per rider and say “this is the best.” There might even be better ways to extend the N eastward than to LaGuardia: an elevated line over Ditmars, a short segment of the Grand Central Parkway, and Astoria Boulevard would serve East Elmhurst, a dense, transit-deprived section of Queens, and would probably produce higher ridership than a swerve from the GCP to the airport.
Such is the power of a governor who’s accountable to nobody: he proposes a scheme, and even the criticism is on the governor’s own terms of providing service to LaGuardia. Yonah compares travel times to various destinations on various alignments for connecting LaGuardia to the subway. Nate Silver’s response has an infographic with travel times from the airport to city hall in various American cities – an infographic that is of little use to New York, where the main destination is far north of city hall, but is well within the general topic of LaGuardia’s airport connections. Even I, cognizant of this agenda-setting power, have to at least mention an alternative LaGuardia connector, knowing readers will want a plan.
The cheeky response to this is that in a democracy, this wouldn’t happen. Now, the US is a democracy. Cuomo has to stand for election every four years. The worst infrastructure disasters tend to be in countries that are authoritarian through and through: Russia’s elevated winter Olympics costs in Sochi and Qatar’s human rights abuses in the World Cup preparations are the two biggest recent examples. But democracies with insufficient checks on political power are susceptible to this as well. This is common in the third world, where corruption is more common – hence the abuses of the World Cup last summer, in a solidly democratic country – but can also happen in developed countries with democratic deficits.
Usually, the phrase democratic deficit refers to the EU, and by analogy other supranational organizations. But in the US, it’s a useful framework for thinking of local and state governments. Rick Scott, Scott Walker, and John Kasich needed nobody’s approval to reject federal funding for intercity rail. Chris Christie did not need anyone’s approval to cancel ARC, or to cause traffic jams in retribution against a mayor who refused to endorse him; in a recent article in New York YIMBY, defending the cancellation of ARC as originally proposed, I made sure to take multiple barbs at Christie, just to avoid playing into the agenda of canceling ARC to posture about government waste while diverting rail money to the New Jersey Turnpike.
Cuomo’s power is if anything even greater: the New York state government works by a three men in a room model, in which the governor, the speaker of the State Assembly (just indicted for corruption), and the majority leader in the State Senate (currently relatively powerless and dependent on Cuomo) wield all practical power. In such a system, Cuomo does not have the power to shoot protesters, thankfully, but does have the power to propose megaprojects that glorify him, without a broad discussion with stakeholders, in which the MTA’s long-term expansion plans and cost-benefit ratios would come into play.
Last year, in writing about elite infrastructure projects that are not about meeting a service need, I noted that talking about such projects in terms of cost-effectiveness is moot, because they were never intended to be about benefiting the wider public. We could discuss where to spend money on transit in New York in the way that would benefit the largest number of riders. We could even discuss what the optimal way of connecting to LaGuardia is, before comparing the best connection with non-airport projects to see where it should lie on the list of future expansions. But it would be pointless, because Cuomo is not interested in spending money on benefiting the largest number of riders; he frankly does not care about transit riders. When the time came to support transit riders, for example in signing a lockbox bill guaranteeing that money the state government had promised the MTA would indeed go to the MTA, he vetoed the bill instead.
In such a climate, as soon as we talk about tweaks to Cuomo’s plan, Cuomo’s already won; whatever happens, he will reap the credit, and use it to buy political capital to keep building unnecessary megaprojects. Even trying to make the best of a bad situation by making the airport connector better is of little use, since Cuomo will support the plan that maximizes his political capital and not the one that maximizes transit usage even within such constraints as “must serve LaGuardia.”
This is evident in his response to criticism among transit activists. After listing the many pundits and activists who oppose the plan, Capital New York included a response from the governor’s office, which said, in so many words, “our plan is better because it doesn’t go through populated neighborhoods, where there would be NIMBYs.” What those of us who want good transit view as a feature – connecting to underserved neighborhoods and not just to the airport – Cuomo regards as a bug. A plan that included additional stops in Astoria might well attract community support, while still offering much faster trip times to Manhattan because of the direct route, but would rely on non-airport ridership, which Cuomo doesn’t care about, to keep the cost per rider reasonable.
Because of this disconnect between what would work for transit users and what would work for Cuomo, the only reasonable answer to the plan is a simple no, which should be said as sharply as possible. No working with the proposal: it’s terrible, a true stone soup. No tweaks: Cuomo wouldn’t want any ingredients that would improve the soup, and would insist on keeping the stone in anyway. (He doesn’t have to eat it, he doesn’t use transit either way.) And, within the parameters of a transit conversation in which people are desperate to see expansions, no discussion that validates Cuomo’s original plan.
Update 7/28: in a joint announcement with Joe Biden, Cuomo has just announced $4 billion in airport improvements at LaGuardia, bundling the rail connector into the larger projects. I have nothing to add that I didn’t already cover in this post and in my older post about elite infrastructure investments.