Earlier this month, Andrew Cuomo unveiled a proposal to spend $10 billion on improvements to JFK Airport, including new terminals, highway expansion, and public transit access. I encourage readers to look at the plan: the section on highways proposes $1.5-2 billion in investment including adding lanes to the Van Wyck Expressway and to on-ramps, and has the cheek to say that this will reduce fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. This while the section on mass transit gives it short shrift, only proposing superficial improvements to the AirTrain; in the unlikely the case that this is built, highway mode share will grow and transit mode share will fall. Put in plainer terms, the environmental case for the plan includes fraud.
However, this is not really the topic of this post. That Andrew Cuomo lies to the voters and doesn’t care about good transportation is by now a dog-bites-man story. Instead, I want to focus a little on a throwaway line in the plan, and more on the Regional Plan Association’s reaction. The throwaway line is that almost every major world airport has a one-seat train ride to city center, and by implication, so should JFK.
As an organization dedicated to environment-friendly public transit, the RPA should have made it very clear it opposes the plan due to its low overall transportation value and its favoring of highways over transit. Instead, the RPA immediately launched a brief detailing possible new airport connectors between JFK and Manhattan. The RPA has a lot of good technical people, and its list of the pros and cons of each option is solid. It correctly notes that using the LIRR and Rockaway Beach Branch would compete for traffic with LIRR trains serving Long Island, although it doesn’t mention associated problems like low frequency. The brief is based on prior RPA proposals, but the timing, just after Cuomo came out with his announcement, suggests an endorsement. There are several intertwined problems here:
There is no no-build option
A good study for public transit should not only consider different alignments and service patterns, but also question whether the project is necessary. The US requires environmental impact statements to include a no build option; European countries require a cost-benefit analysis, and will not fund projects with a benefit/cost ratio under 1.2, because of cost escalation risk.
The RPA study does not question whether a one-seat ride from JFK to Manhattan is necessary or useful. It assumes that it is. Everything else about the study follows from that parameter. Thus, it considers entirely express plans, such as the LIRR option, alongside local options. Everything is subsumed into the question of connecting JFK to Manhattan.
One of the alignments proposed is via the LIRR Atlantic Branch and Second Avenue Subway, which the RPA has long believed should be connected. The brief says that it would be slow because it would have to make many local stops; I’ll add that it would serve Midtown, where nearly all the hotels are, via a circuitous alignment. But with all these stops on the way, shouldn’t this be considered as primarily a new trunk line connecting Eastern Brooklyn with Second Avenue? The question of whether the eastern terminus should be Jamaica or JFK must be subsumed to a study of this specific line, which at any rate is unlikely to offer faster service to JFK than the existing AirTrain-to-E option. After all, the most optimistic ridership projection for a JFK connector is maybe 40,000 users per day, whereas the projection for the full Second Avenue Subway is 500,000. I don’t think a Second Avenue-Atlantic Branch connection is warranted, but if it is, the question of whether to serve JFK at the end is secondary.
Express airport connectors are a fetish
I lived in Stockholm for two years, where I went to the airport exclusively using the Arlanda Express, a premium express link running nonstop between the airport and city center. I imagine many visitors to Stockholm use it, are satisfied, and want to replicate it in their own cities.
Unfortunately, such replications miss something important: any air-rail link must go to the areas that people are likely to want to connect to. For locals who wish to travel to the airport, this means good connections to the local transit network, since they are likely to come from many neighborhoods. Not even a small city like Stockholm worries about providing rich areas like Vasastan and Roslag with a one-seat ride. For visitors, this means a one-seat ride to where the hotels are.
Stockholm is a largely monocentric city, with one city center where everything is. (It has an edge city in Kista, with more skyscrapers than Central Stockholm, but Kista can’t be reasonably connected to the airport). The situation in other cities is more complicated. And yet, express air links prioritize serving a big train station even if it’s poorly connected to the transit network and far from the hotels. Let us consider London and Paris.
In London, the five-star hotels cluster around the West End. Only two are at Paddington Station, and only a few more are an easy walking distance from it. This is where the Heathrow Express and the slower Heathrow mainline trains go. No wonder the Heathrow Express’s mode share, as of 2004, is 9%, whereas other Heathrow connections, mainly the Piccadilly line, total 27% (source, PDF-p. 28). The Piccadilly line beautifully passes through the parts of the West End with the largest concentration of hotels, and last time I was in London, I chose it as my Heathrow connection. Nonetheless, the government chose to build the Heathrow Express.
In Paris, the five-star hotels cluster in the west of the city as well, in the 8th arrondissement. The current airport connection is via the RER B, which offers express service in the off-peak when there’s capacity, but not in the peak, when there isn’t. Even so, it is a local commuter rail service, with good connections to the city transit system, and a two-seat ride to the 8th. Because of slow perceived speeds, the state is planning to build an express connector, originally planned to open in 2015 but since delayed to 2023. The express connector will dump passengers at Gare de l’Est, with no hotels within walking distance, no access to Metro lines serving the hotel clusters (Metro 7 does so peripherally, M4 and M5 not at all), and a long walk to the RER for passengers wishing to connect to longer-range destinations such as parts of the Left Bank.
I bring this up to show that the idea of the express air-rail link is a fetish rather than a transportation project, and by analogy, so is the one-seat ride. There is value in faster service and in minimizing the number of transfers, but express airport connectors attempt both even at the cost of building a line that doesn’t go where people want to go.
Ultimately, Cuomo doesn’t care about good transit
Cuomo has many concerns. The chief one is most likely winning the 2020 presidential primary. He has been running for president since the moment he was elected, and many of his policies – gay marriage, the feuds with Bill de Blasio, the desperate attempt to build shiny infrastructure with his name on it – are best viewed through that lens. To the extent that he is not running for president, he has attempted to cement absolute power within the state. He backed a palace coup in the State Senate that secured a Republican(-ish) majority even though the Democrats won most seats; a Democratic majority would be led by a different faction of the party, one more beholden to Democratic interest groups, and might send Cuomo bills that he would lose political capital if he either signed or vetoed them.
This is why I keep giving him as an example of an autocrat in various posts; here is the major takedown, but see also here. Autocrats are always bad for the areas that they govern, which as two separate implications. The first is that their choice of spending priorities is compromised by the need to expand their own power and glory: even if you believe that New York needs $1.5-2 billion in new highway spending, is the Van Wyck really the best place for it?
The second and worse implication is that it is hard for outside groups to convince autocrats to do better. Autocrats don’t have to listen; if they did, they would be democratic leaders. Cuomo happens to be an anti-transit autocrat, and this means that pro-transit groups in New York need to view him as an obstacle and work to weaken him, rather than to ask him to please consider their plans for an air-rail link.
The difficulty is that, precisely because local- and state-level democracy in the US is so weak, it is difficult for issue-oriented groups to go out and oppose the governor. Planners in Democratic cities are hesitant to attack budget-cutting Republican governors like Charlie Baker and Larry Hogan; attacking Democratic governors like Cuomo is a nonstarter. Nonetheless, the RPA needs to understand that it needs to oppose governments hostile to public transit rather than ask them to improve. When Cuomo proposes a bad transportation project, say “no” and move on to more important things; don’t try to work with him, because nothing good can come of that.