RPA Fourth Regional Plan: LaGuardia Airport and the Astoria Line

This is the second post based on a Patreon poll about the RPA Fourth Regional Plan. See the first post, about Third Avenue, here.

The most worrisome part of the RPA Fourth Regional Plan is the LaGuardia Airport connector. The regional rail system the RPA is proposing includes some truly massive wastes of money, but what the RPA is proposing around LaGuardia showcases the worst aspects of the plan. On Curbed I explained that the plan has an unfortunate tendency to throw in every single politically-supported proposal. I’d like to expand on what I said in the article about the airport connector:

The most egregious example is another transit project favored by a political heavyweight: the LaGuardia AirTrain, championed by Governor Andrew Cuomo. Though he touts it as a one-seat ride from Midtown to LaGuardia, the vast majority of airport travelers going to Manhattan would have to go east to Willets Point (a potential redevelopment site) before they could go west. Even airport employees would have to backtrack to get to their homes in Jackson Heights and surrounding neighborhoods. As a result, it wouldn’t save airport riders any time over the existing buses.

Once again, it’s proven unpopular with transit experts and advocates: [Ben] Kabak mocked the idea as vaporware, and Yonah Freemark showed how circuitous this link would be. When Cuomo first proposed this idea, Politico cited a number of additional people who study public transportation in the region with negative reactions. Despite its unpopularity—and the lack of an official cost for the proposal—the AirTrain LaGuardia is included in the RPA’s latest plan.

But there is an alternative to Cuomo’s plan: an extension of the N/W train, proposed in the 1990s, which would provide a direct route along with additional stops within Astoria, where there is demand for subway service. Community opposition killed the original proposal, but a lot can change in 15 years; Astoria’s current residents may well be more amenable to an airport connector that would put them mere minutes from LaGuardia. Cuomo never even tried, deliberately shying away from this populated area.

And the Fourth Plan does include a number of subway extensions, some of which have long been on official and unofficial wishlists. Those include extensions under Utica and Nostrand avenues (planned together with Second Avenue Subway, going back to the 1950s), which also go under two of the top bus routes in the city, per [Jarrett] Walker’s maxim [that the best argument for an urban rail line is an overcrowded bus line, as on Utica and Nostrand].

There is also an extension of the N/W trains in Astoria—though not toward LaGuardia, but west, toward the waterfront, where it would provide a circuitous route to Manhattan. In effect, the RPA is proposing to stoke the community opposition Cuomo was afraid of, but still build the easy—and unsupported—airport connector Cuomo favors.

My views of extending the Astoria Line toward LaGuardia have evolved in the last few years, in a more positive direction. In my first crayon, which I drew in 2010, I didn’t even have that extension; I believed that the Astoria Line should be extended on Astoria Boulevard and miss the airport entirely, because Astoria Boulevard was the more important corridor. My spite map from 2010, give or take a year, connects LGA to the subway via a shuttle under Junction, and has a subway branch under Northern, a subway extension that I’ve been revising my views of negatively.

The issue, to me, is one of branching and capacity. The Astoria Line is a trunk line on the subway, feeding an entire tunnel to Manhattan, under 60th Street; the Queens Boulevard Line also feeds the same tunnel via the R train, but this is inefficient, since there are four trunk lines (Astoria, Flushing, and Queens Boulevard times two since it has four tracks), four tunnels (63rd, 60th, 53rd, Steinway/42nd), and no way to get from the Astoria Line to the other tunnels. This was one of my impetuses for writing about the problems associated with reverse-branching. Among the four trunks in Queens, the Astoria Line is the shortest and lowest-ridership, so it should be extended deeper into Queens if it is possible to do so.

The RPA is proposing to extend the Astoria Line, to its credit. But its extension goes west, to the waterfront. This isn’t really a compelling destination. Development isn’t any more intense than farther east, and for obvious reasons it isn’t possible to extend this line further; the RPA’s proposal would only add one stop to the subway. In contrast, an eastern extension toward LGA could potentially rebuild the line to turn east on Ditmars (with some takings on the interior of the curve at Ditmars and 31st), with stops at Steinway and Hazen before serving the airport. The intensity of development at Steinway is similar to that at 31st and Ditmars or at 21st, and Hazen also has some housing, albeit at lower density. Then, there is the airport, which would be about 8 minutes from Astoria, and 26 minutes from 57th and 7th in Manhattan. This is a different route from that proposed in the Giuliani administration, involving going north above 31st and then east farther out, running nonstop to the airport (or perhaps serving a station or two) through less residential areas, but I believe it is the best one despite the added impact of running elevated on Ditmars.

LGA is not a huge ridership generator; total O&D ridership according to the Consumer Airfare Report is around 55,000 per day, and 33% mode share is aspirational even with fast direct service to Manhattan hotels and an easy connection to the Upper East Side. But it still provides ridership comparable to that of Astoria Boulevard or Ditmars on the line today, and Steinway and Hazen are likely to add more demand. If the MTA closes the 11th Street Connection, taking the R from 60th Street Tunnel to the Queens Boulevard Line, in order to reduce the extent of reverse-branching, then the Astoria Line will run under capacity and need this additional demand. The total number of boardings at all stations, including Queensboro Plaza, is 80,000 per weekday today, plus some transfer volumes from the 7, which empties at Queensboro Plaza as 60th Street Tunnel provides a faster route to most Manhattan destinations than the Steinway Tunnel. An LGA extension should add maybe 40,000 or 50,000 weekday riders, without much of a peak since airport travel isn’t peaky, and make it easier to isolate the Astoria Line from the other Queens lines. This is not possible with a short extension to the waterfront as the RPA proposes.

I’ve seen someone suggest somewhere I don’t remember, perhaps on Twitter, that the reason the RPA plan involves an extension of the Astoria line to the west is to insidiously get the correct extension to LGA passed. If the RPA can propose an el in Astoria and not be killed by NIMBYs, then it will prove to Cuomo that NIMBYism is not a problem and thus he can send the subway to the airport directly, without the circuitous air train project that even less acerbic transit writers like Ben and Yonah hate.

I disagree with this line, on two different grounds. The first is that the RPA has two other reasons to support a western extension of the Astoria Line: it connects to the waterfront (which, following de Blasio and his support for the waterfront tramway, the RPA wants to develop further), and it got a station on Triboro in the Third Regional Plan, in the 1990s. I can no longer find the map with the stations on Mike Frumin’s blog, but the plan was to have a station every 800 meters, with a station to the west of Ditmar/31st still in Queens, around 21st Street; only in the more recent plan did the RPA redesign the idea as Crossboro, with much wider stop spacing.

The second grounds for disagreement is that the RPA presented a long-term vision. If Cuomo’s flawed LGA connector is there, then it will embolden him to find money to build this connection, even though it’s slower than taking a bus to the subway today. It will not embolden anyone to look for funding for the extension of the Astoria Line to the west, since there is no force clamoring for such extension – not the neighborhood, and not even the RPA, which includes this line on a long list of proposals.

As I said on Curbed, the RPA has been around for 90 years. Cuomo is just a governor, not even the leader of a real political movement (unlike Bernie Sanders, who seems to be interested in his leftist agenda more than in himself). There is no reason for an organization so venerable to tether itself to a politician who isn’t likely to be around for more than a few more years. On the contrary, it can provide cover for Cuomo to change his plan, if it does some legwork to prove that people in Astoria actually are interested in subway expansion to the east.

27 comments

  1. Michael James

    The second grounds for disagreement is that the RPA presented a long-term vision. If Cuomo’s flawed LGA connector is there, then it will embolden him to find money to build this connection, even though it’s slower than taking a bus to the subway today. It will not embolden anyone to look for funding for the extension of the Astoria Line to the west,

    Won’t the LGA AirTrain obtain considerable funding via a tax on air pax? Such a tax at JFK had raised $400m before they even began construction. Also like the JFK AirTrain, it allows a higher fare than if it was just part of the regular subway?

    And of course not least is that these AirTrains are totally driverless and use platform-aligned doors, so one presumes operating costs are a lot lower than MTA’s bloated costs, and especially when running frequent service at all hours (?18 h a day?). Must be cheaper to run than the existing bus service (which captures a lamentably low fraction of travellers)? To this non-expert it looks like the LGA AirTrain could be extended west, ie. in addition to its Willets link, to Astoria. (However I don’t understand the claims of “one ride” to midtown since the AirTrain is intended to be the same system as JFK which is not compatible with subway track and systems?)

    I haven’t read anything about the operational balance sheet of the JFK train but it seems like it should be that ideal of transport planners (and the hostile road lobby, and bean-counters in general), ie. user pays?

    I also don’t think your criticisms of the eastward step to Willets (actually it is SSE, it doesn’t go very far east) stands up. If city transport planners don’t take such future development into account they aren’t doing their job. I see this (below, Wiki) on the economic effect of the JFK link at Jamaica (pity the JFK AirTrain didn’t capture a part of this added value):

    As a result of the AirTrain JFK, Jamaica saw a boom in commerce, with a 15-screen movie theater opening in the area within a year of the AirTrain’s debut.[81] The effects were evident even before the AirTrain opened; by June 2003, a 50,000-square-foot (4,600 m2), 16-story building was being planned for Sutphin Boulevard across from the new station. Other nearby projects built in the five preceding years included the Jamaica Center Mall; Joseph P. Addabbo Federal Building; the Civil Court; and the Food and Drug Administration Laboratory and Offices.[82] In 2004, a 40-block swath of Jamaica, centered around the AirTrain station, was proposed to be rezoned as a commercial area. The mixed-use “airport village” would consist of 5,000,000 square feet (460,000 m2) of space, and by the time the rezoning was proposed, a 400,000-square-foot (37,000 m2), 13-floor structure in the area was already being proposed by a developer.[81] The purpose was for Jamaica to be re-envisioned as a “regional center,” according to the RPA, since during the average weekday, 100,000 LIRR riders and 53,000 subway riders used stations in the core Jamaica.

    • Henry

      > Must be cheaper to run than the existing bus service (which captures a lamentably low fraction of travellers)

      Sure, but once you factor in the bonds you need to build this thing that argument runs a little bit thinner.

      > I also don’t think your criticisms of the eastward step to Willets (actually it is SSE, it doesn’t go very far east) stands up. If city transport planners don’t take such future development into account they aren’t doing their job. I see this (below, Wiki) on the economic effect of the JFK link at Jamaica (pity the JFK AirTrain didn’t capture a part of this added value):

      Willets is both a major flood zone and has been held up by numerous legal troubles over the years; I doubt it’ll ever get off the ground. The other major difference is that Jamaica is actually on the way to Manhattan, if indirect, whereas Willets Point is in the wholly opposite direction. And even then, Jamaica was already an existing business district with 153,000 people passing through; today Willets Point is an auto repair slum that nobody is passing through.

  2. PeakVT

    I put together this map of various proposals several years ago. Not much has changed. My preferred option is sending the N-train north for two blocks and then underground to the east in order to minimize the amount of new elevated track, but as a non-resident, I’m not really invested in any option. That said, I suspect that even 2.5 blocks of above-street elevated will never be politically feasible (at least until Generalissimo Trump appoints Giuliani Governer-General of New York), leaving the extension above the Grand Central Parkway as the most likely of an unlikely lot.

  3. Henry

    I don’t think an el is possible, because one of the LGA landing paths runs up right to the GCP in the west, and the clearance is so restricted that the parkway has special floodlights in the area.

    A more ideal plan IMO would be to have a Sheppard-style stubway built from Astoria Blvd station to 82nd/Astoria and have some light rail people mover there, and then extend it east in stages to Flushing, Jamaica, and SE Queens; and extending it in the west across 86th St and down 10th Av to 72nd St, eventually combining it with the L. Maybe future proof the initial stubway segment to have RX terminate there instead of going to the Bronx.

    • Untangled

      Are you referring to Line 4 in Toronto there? If so, that line is junk and is hardly a good model. Especially if it doesn’t stop at the airport itself, if you’re going to do that, at least put a station at the airport rather than another connection at 82nd/Astoria.

      • Henry

        I meant in terms of buildout. The area around Astoria Blvd is significantly denser and more walkable, if more low-rise in form, than the area around Line 4. In fact, it’s more comparable to the densest parts of Eglinton.

        The area in fact, is so dense that I don’t really see the value of a direct LGA connection over a stop that serves commuters and an APM. It’s not easy to build an LGA station that interfaces properly with the dense neighborhoods around it.

    • Alon Levy

      I used to agree with you that it’s better to put an el over Astoria (as an extension of the N/W, not as a shuttle). The reasons I no longer do are,

      1. The route from Astoria Boulevard to Manhattan via the N/W isn’t all that direct; the eastern end is walkable to the 7, which offers a more direct route, and at 82nd Street it’s still walkable to Northern, which should eventually get a subway.

      2. Airport travelers probably have unusually high transfer penalties, because they have luggage and many are unfamiliar with the city.

      3. Astoria is a wide street, appropriate for an el, with a bunch of retail, but it’s not as useful a throughfare as Northern because at one end it becomes a freeway. (Neither street has much bus ridership, since people instead ride north-south buses to the subway.)

      As for the floodlights: on the sides of the parkway there are trees and buildings rising 10-12 meters over the surrounding area (which is already a few meters above the sunken parkway). And once you’re on airport grounds you can drop to grade and slightly move airport roads around.

      • Henry

        I don’t really like the idea of the Astoria being extended east, if only because the lack of available train capacity. I also don’t really agree with removing Broadway trains from Queens Blvd; what would replace that service?

        I don’t really like a Northern alignment for a subway, just because Northern has no great western options in terms of links that connect to everything, avoid threading through large amounts of infrastructure, and don’t duplicate existing options. Northern is walkable from Astoria; but Northern is also walkable from Roosevelt. In that sense, an Astoria Blvd subway would provide better coverage of underserved areas, as well as unlock areas with more development capacity. And Astoria Blvd happens to line up pretty nicely with 86 St; you could provide a reasonable northern Queens express from Flushing to 72nd/10th.

        • Alon Levy

          There’s unused capacity on 63rd Street. The resulting service would cross 53rd Street without a transfer, but then the R already crosses the E without a transfer in Midtown.

          The problem with your Astoria-86th-10th-L compromise alignment is that it’s really circuitous. There isn’t any clamoring for service from Queens to 86th Street; the main job sites on the Upper East and West Sides are in the 60s, and 86th is just a strong crosstown route internal to Manhattan. People around Northern would keep walking to the 7, since it gets them to where they want to go, faster.

          Northern is a good corridor with a difficult trunk in Manhattan. I used to just make it a branch off of 63rd Street, before I figured that closing the 11th Street Connection would be a net good. Now I think the city needs to bite the bullet and fund a fifth subway tunnel between Queens and Manhattan, probably going under 50th.

          • Henry

            No one’s clamoring for it now because that kind of trip is just not possible today by any mode of transportation. An 86th St line would allow the city to rebalance away from the Midtown/LIC-centric model that the Queens subway network currently encourages. Plus, it’d essentially be far enough north, if you linked it to RX, to supplant the Bronx section of RX; connecting at 86th St to a northbound train is really not all that much different than going north through Randall’s Island either to 125th St or to some convoluted routing in the South Bronx.

            And the devil is really in the details; I would only expect the Astoria Blvd line to make stops at 31st, 82nd, 94th, 108th, and then Flushing due to the street network. 21st if the waterfront development really justifies it. I’d assume that any Northern Line would be less aggressive with long interstations.

          • Henry

            A Queens-Bronx connection is important. I just don’t think that Yankee Stadium/The Hub – Astoria/Jackson Heights via the Hell Gate is a particularly important one to make, especially given limited space for tracks and an Astoria station on the Hell Gate Line. For Central/Western Bronx to Central/Western Queens, I don’t see any major benefits over, say, 125th St – Astoria/Jackson Heights, or 96th – Astoria/Jackson Heights, or 86th St – Astoria/Jackson Heights.

            Given that the only major jobs center in Queens that the RX even hits is Jackson Heights, and the RX is either just as fast or slower for trips to jobs centers in Brooklyn, I would much rather that the Q44 be strengthened via some BRT/LRT upgrades that are more than SBS to improve Queens/Bronx connectivity.

          • adirondacker12800

            But great big thundering herds of them are going to show up at a Corona LIRR stop or an Elmhurst LIRR stop even though the subway gets them to where they are going faster.
            More of them change from the Flushing Line to the Astoria line, inbound, than vice versa because there are more stops on that combination than there are on the Astoria Line to Flushing combo. Lots more stops.

      • johndmuller

        Alon, you say the comment that the 7 is more “direct” than a N/W route would be on Astoria, yet in the post itself you dis the 7 route – “which empties at Queensboro Pl” – because the 60th St. tunnel provides a better/faster route to most destinations than the Steinway. I get that there are pros and cons, but you ought to pick one of the other, at least in the same thread.

        Personally, I find the 7 route kind of slow and winding close in, but it does go to GCT, which is a big point in its favor.

  4. newtonmarunner

    Thanks, so much, for this, Alon. You do such impressive work.

    I actually agree with your old view that even with Triboro hitting Ditmars, Astoria Blvd. remains the better corridor for an Astoria Line Extension than the Airport via Ditmars. Capacity is such a huge issue from Queens to Midtown, so I really think you have to maximize ridership on each of the four Queens-Midtown Tunnels. I think the Astoria Blvd. route will have much better ridership than Ditmars, as Astoria Blvd. will provide better coverage to Astoria, Jackson Heights, Corona, and Elmhurst. The AirTrain on Junction/Queens Blvd. will spread the airport ridership among the QB, Flushing, mythical Astoria Blvd., mythical Northern, mythical Triboro, and mythical Regional Rail as opposed to putting airport ridership on a single line. You may need to add a Triboro Station on Astoria Blvd. to retain Triboro’s connection to the Astoria Line, and Ditmars may have to lose its its place on the Astoria, Line, though.

    While you’re at extending the Astoria Line and eliminating reverse branching, add another Queens-Manhattan trunk line on 50th St. so Northern can fit in somehow (maybe via the 63rd St. Tunnel w/ QB Express and QB Local getting the 53rd and 50th St. Tunnels, respectively), relieving the Flushing and the 53rd St. Tunnel. …

      • Henry

        A Northern line only works to provide coverage in northern Queens if you also have a line going to LGA. IMO it’d be better to split the difference with Astoria, from which pretty much all of the underserved parts of northwestern Queens is walkable, rather than try to force awkward bus-rail transfers with an LGA extension and cover the rest with a Northern Blvd subway.

      • newtonmarunner

        Fair enough. Astoria Blvd. is too circuitous to take if Northern is there.

        I still like the AirTrain connecting to multiple lines in Queens, though, as not everyone can stay close to the Astoria Line (be it the 60th St. Tunnel or the 42nd St. Tunnel), and will have to transfer. By having AirTrain connect to multiple lines, Midtown tourists will be able to get the subway line closest to their hotel (shorter walk to subway than if on the Astoria Line), and then transfer in Queens on LGA AirTrain.

      • newtonmarunner

        Except the locals working on W. 4th, Union Sq., FiDi wanting an easier transfer to an express train. [63rd to 6th Ave. Local and a mythical 50th St. Tunnel — both which are where Northern would potentially go — provide crap connections to those secondary business districts.] …

        Still, I agree with you that it’s not worth giving up a Midtown/LGA vía Astoria, one-seat ride and the Ditmars stop for an Astoria Blvd. extension with Northern there. Northern Line and Astoria Line to LGA via Steinway, Hazen should be sufficient coverage for Northwestern Queens.

        Okay, regional rail and Triboro, too. … -:)

  5. Eli

    I would imagine that the Durst organization–currently building Hallets Point, which will add around 2,000 units of housing around the western end of Astoria Boulevard–is clamoring for that westward extension, at least. And the head of the tenants’ organization at the Astoria Houses (3,000+ residents) was in the NYT the other day lamenting the long walk to the current Astoria line station. There are also a number of other new high- and mid-rise residential buildings in this area. It’s not accurate to say that the neighborhood isn’t asking for this extension. (There is also a connection possible here with the Astoria ferry line.)

    • Bobbo

      The RPA’s proposed Astoria Line extension is to 21 St. & 20 Ave., which is a far walk in the wrong direction for someone at the new Hallets Cove site or Astoria Houses. These folks would stick with a bus to 30 Ave. or Queens Plaza, or take the new ferry instead of making that trek.

  6. brucewhain

    The Port Authority’s consultant came back in November having fulfilled a $25-million contract apparently without selecting a route, for the LGA AirTrain. So they gave them another contract for 70. It’s only 2 and a half miles long. When questioned after the meeting why so much money they said it was necessary to do geological explorations in Queens – but it’s customary to select a route before doing a survey. And the geology in Queens is well known. Everything about this project is vague and there is no definitive plan/drawing. I have proposed an alternate plan to them with a direct route, which I call LaGuardia Direct Route. There is an 18-minute video about it here- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rfg7PE8K7gI&t=1s

  7. Pingback: The RPA Construction Cost Report | Pedestrian Observations

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