Port Authority’s LaGuardia Rail Link Study

Two days ago, Port Authority put out a study about a rail link to LaGuardia, which became Governor Cuomo’s top transit priority a few years ago. The PDF file is bundled with the RFP, but starting on PDF-p. 25 it’s an alternatives analysis and not an RFP. While transit activists including myself have attacked Cuomo’s proposed rail link for its poor alignment choice, the Port Authority study considers many alternatives, including some interesting ones. It also describes the current situation in more detail than I’ve seen elsewhere. I’d like to talk about the alternatives for a rail link, but also summarize some of the important facts buried in the study. Unfortunately, the study also eliminates all the useful options and prefers to advance only Cuomo’s uselessly circuitous alignment.

The current situation

LaGuardia had about 25 million O&D passengers in 2017. They disproportionately go to or from Midtown, but it’s not as overwhelming as I thought based on this density map. Here is a precise breakdown, lumping together both locals (33%) and visitors (67%):

In Manhattan and western Queens “Walking access” means half a mile from a commuter rail stop or from the 7 train; there is no attempt to track walk access to the N or W trains. In Eastern Queens it means half a mile from any subway stop.

About half of the passengers get to or from the airport by taxi, and another 20% are dropped off or picked up in a car. Only 6.2% use public transportation, and another 5.6% use a shared ride such as a hotel shuttle.

Among employees, the situation is different. I expected employees to cluster in western and central Queens, but in fact, based on the same categories used for passengers, the largest group is Queens East beyond subway range:

There are 13,000 employees at LaGuardia per Port Authority (compared with about 10,000 per OnTheMap), of whom 40% take transit to work and 57% drive. It goes without saying that the transit options are exceedingly harsh. The connections from Brooklyn require taking a subway through Manhattan (and I don’t think LGA is necessarily important enough to justify a direct bus route from Brooklyn, presumably a merger of the B38 with a Q18/Q47 compromise route to the airport). From Queens beyond subway range they require taking a bus to the subway and then another bus. The implication is that people take transit to the airport out of necessity – that is, poverty – and not because the options are good.

Unfortunately, the implication is also that it’s hard to serve the current employee base by any rail link, even if it’s fare-integrated with the subway (unlike the JFK AirTrain). The origins are too dispersed. The best that can be done is serving one tranche of origins, and letting passengers sort themselves based on commute possibilities.

In some strategic places, a decent two-seat ride can be made available. The M60 bus is not good for passengers, but it is fine for employees since more of them come from Upper Manhattan and the Bronx, and moreover low incomes imply that it’s fine to have a transit : car trip time ratio well in excess of 1 provided it’s not too onerous. Some future rail extensions, not covered in the study, would help with passenger distribution: Triboro RX would help get passengers from the South Bronx, Brooklyn, and parts of Queens to major transfer points at Astoria and Jackson Heights, and Penn Station Access with an Astoria stop would help get eastern Bronx passengers into Astoria with a quick transfer.

The alternatives analyzed

The study mentions a horde of different options for connecting people to the airport, but most only get a few paragraphs followed by an indication that they don’t meet the objectives and therefore should not be considered further. These excluded alignments exist only for i-dotting and t-crossing, such as ferries or whatever Elon Musk is calling his tunnels this year; Port Authority is right to reject them.

The alternatives proposed for further consideration consist of no build, subway extensions, and various air train alignments. Unfortunately, on second pass, the subway extensions are all eliminated, on the same grounds of community impact. This includes the least impactful subway extension, going north on 31st Street and then east on 19th Avenue, avoiding Ditmars (which could host an el).

Instead of a subway extension, the study is recommending an air train. There are many alternatives analyzed: one from Astoria along the Grand Central Parkway, one from Woodside with a connecting to the local M/R trains on the Queens Boulevard Line at Northern Boulevard, one from Jackson Heights, one from Jamaica with a missed connection to the 7, and one from Willets Point as recommended by Cuomo. All but the last are excluded on the same grounds of impact. Any land acquisition appears to be prohibited, no matter how minor.

What went wrong?

The obvious answer to why the study recommends the Willets Point detour is political support. This can be seen in e.g. PDF-p. 150, a table analyzing each of the air train possibilities. One of the criteria is operational concerns. The Jamaica option fails that test because it is so circuitous it would not get passengers between the airport and either Penn Station or Grand Central in thirty minutes. The Willets Point option passes, despite being circuitous as well (albeit less so); it would still not get passengers to Midtown Manhattan in thirty minutes since the 7 is slow, but the study seems to be assuming passengers would take the LIRR, on the half-hourly Port Washington Branch.

This alone suggests political sandbagging. But by itself it doesn’t explain how the study’s assumptions sandbag the options the governor doesn’t favor; after all, there could be many little omissions and judgment calls.

Rather, I propose that the study specifically looked only at nonstop service to the airport. The subway extensions are all proposed as nonstop services from Astoria (either Astoria Boulevard or Ditmars) to the airport, without intermediate stops. Without intermediate stops, the political will to build els above neighborhood streets is diminished, because few people in Astoria have any need to travel to LaGuardia. In contrast, with intermediate stops, the subway extensions would improve coverage within Astoria, serving Steinway and Hazen Streets.

If intermediate stops are desired, then 19th Avenue may not be the best corridor. Ditmars itself is feasible (with some takings), as are 21st and 20th Avenues. Ditmars has the most impact but serves the highest-value location, and can descend to Grand Central Parkway to get to the airport without any tunneling, limiting costs.

Moreover, the impact of els can be reduced by building them on concrete columns rather than all-steel structures. Paris Metro Line 2 opened in 1903, before the First Subway in New York; it has a steel structure on top of concrete columns, and the noise level is low enough that people can have conversations underneath while a train is passing. New Yorkers should be familiar with the reduced noise of concrete structures since the 7 el on top of Queens Boulevard is quiet, but that is an all-concrete structure on a very wide street; Line 2 here follows wide boulevards as well but not so wide as Queens Boulevard, and is moreover a mixture of concrete and steel, and yet manages not to have the screeching noise New Yorkers are familiar with from Astoria, Woodside, and other neighborhoods with els.

Is this study valuable?

Yes and no. Its conclusions should be tossed for their limited scope (nonstop airport access only), questionable assumptions (overreliance on infrequent commuter rail), and political aims (justifying Cuomo’s decision). But some of the underlying analysis, especially of current travel patterns, is useful for the purposes of thinking about systemwide transit expansion. Despite the consideration of an N/W extension, the study does not try to figure out the percentage of travelers whose ultimate origin or destination is near an N/W stop, only near a 7 stop; however, we can make some educated guesses from the map and realize that an N/W extension is of considerable value to passengers.

For employees, the situation is more delicate. The study mentions them but doesn’t try to optimize for them – the aim is to give Cuomo political cover, not to design the best possible public transit for New York. But the dispersal of worker origins means that a single rail link to the airport is unlikely to have much of an effect. Better everywhere-to-everywhere transit is needed. With decent bus connections at Astoria and Jackson Heights, it’s more important to build circumferential transit there (that is, Triboro) than to connect directly to the airport.

A general program of transit expansion would serve both groups. An N/W extension through Astoria with intermediate stops would give the neighborhood better coverage while also connecting the airport with Manhattan destinations, with good transfers to origins on the Upper East and West Sides. Better circumferential transit would then let workers from different parts of the city use the same extension without having to detour through Midtown even if their origins are in the Bronx or Queens.

Can any of this happen? The answer is unambiguously yes. Even in New York, els and at-grade rail is not so expensive. The only real question is whether good transit can happen while the state is governed by a do-nothing administration, headed by a governor who is more interested in a signature project than in improving transportation for his hapless subjects.


  1. Henry

    I think a real missed opportunity would be a dedicated, two-way busway from 82nd St to Northern Blvd. I don’t think that LGA really needs dedicated rail; but a two-way busway would provide a beneficial speedup, as well as allow LGA routes to connect directly to Flushing (and better connect Flushing to Uptown and the South/Central/Western Bronx)

    Plus, you can send buses off of this busway anywhere you want. Obvious beneficiaries would be the Q70 and the M60; but there was a proposal from NYCDOT for a Bx50 SBS running from Fordham Plaza to LGA via Webster.

    • Alex

      Honestly, you wouldn’t even need that. The main bottlenecks for the Q70 are:
      1. Fighting through LGA terminal traffic to loop from Terminal B back to Terminals C and D.
      2. Getting stuck at red lights and in traffic as the bus loops around at the Roosevelt Av station.

      In my experience, #1 is the real killer. I have a policy of never taking the bus from Terminal B or to Terminals C/D, because it takes so long to loop between the terminals.

      A dedicated bus right of way just within the terminal access roads and some TSP at the lights around Roosevelt Av would make it fast enough to be a pretty good option. Obviously it would have been much better to plan for this work before they did all the recent work on the access roads though…

      • James

        If you think that the creation of a dedicated bus right of way within the terminal area is what should be built please let the FAA know that by explaining your idea at https://www.lgaaccesseis.com/formal-comment. They’re currently accepting public comments about way to improve transit to the airport. Improving bus service, extending the N line, and creating a ferry terminal are all projects being considered as part of the Environmental Review Process. You should also comment about why the Port Authority’s airtrain plan is a bad idea.

  2. PeakVT

    Good analysis. For those who prefer online maps, I entered the options from the previous LaGuardia subway access study (circa 2002, IIRC – in light blue) as well as my own alignments in Gmaps several years ago. They are similar to what is in the new study.

    I understand the desire to minimize community disruption – who really wants their local streets torn up for years – but keeping in mind this infrastructure will be in use for a hundred years or more, it seems to me that the extension of the N is the best option. I prefer a mixed el/tunnel on 31st and 19th, but that’s because I don’t like els. The Ditmars alignment would clearly serve the most local riders, and if it can be made quieter through the use of concrete and fewer/better switches (the main source of unpleasant noise in my experience) then Ditmars should be chosen.

    • James

      If you think it should happen please send a comment to the FAA at https://www.lgaaccesseis.com/formal-comment. They’re currently accepting public comments about way to improve transit to the airport. Extending the N line is one of the projects being considered as part of the Environmental Review Process. If you think the airtrain proposal is a bad idea you should also explain why it is you feel that way.

  3. electricangel

    I’ve lately been flying in to LGA to make an appointment near Bryant Park. My flight is due to land about 1pm, and my appointment is at 3pm. When the flight is on time, I have time to stop, get lunch, catch the Q70 bus from Terminal C, and get to 74th Street and hop an F train to Bryant Park, arriving between 2 and 2:30. The Q70 bus has been a great move for connecting LGA (except marine air terminal) to the NYC transit system. From terminal C, about 15 minutes to the Subway. As Alex points out, from Terminal B, not so good as you have to go through traffic to Terminals D and C before heading to the subway.

    When the flight is delayed so I land about 2pm, the bus is riskier. So I take a cab from LGA (never a wait; thanks, Uber) to Hunterspoint Avenue, whence the 7 train takes one to Bryant park in about 7 minutes plus wait time. This has worked decently well now twice.

    The problem, Alan, isn’t that transit options take longer than a car. Traffic is an unpredictable variable affecting car travel. My home is 26 minutes from LGA by car with no traffic, and that travel time has been as bad as 70 minutes with traffic. So I need to budget near-transit times (90 minutes for train/M60 bus) even though most of the time I then sit waiting at the airport.

    Any proposal that doesn’t take account of the variability introduced by traffic is useless. Thank you, no buses that need to travel roadways with taxis and private cars. An Air Train over the BQE to 65th Street and on to 61st Woodside wouldn’t be bad, especially in light of East Side Access eventually pouring enough dollars into the holes to make a self-supporting arch of paper that trains can run through. That could lower travel times to Penn and Grand Central to a reliable 30 minutes or so, traffic irrelevant. An Air Train back to Willets will do worse than the Q70 most of the time from Terminal C. I wouldn’t use it. Air Train to jfk from LGA stopping at Willets is useful for integrating airports into a near-seamless whole, but not so good for locals getting to the airport. Air Train arcing from JFK through Jamaica to Willets to LGA to Woodside would be magnificent, even better if it hit 74th Street.

    I’d happily take a train over Ditmars to LGA but only if it’s two-tracked, so I could go east or West from any terminal, including the inaccessible Terminal A. That train would likely never get built, however, as the funds to build it would come from PFCs atLGA, which don’t allow any non-airport stops to be built.

    Thanks for fighting the fight for us.

    • James

      If you think it should happen please send a comment to the FAA at https://www.lgaaccesseis.com/formal-comment. They’re currently accepting public comments about way to improve transit to the airport. Extending the N line is one of the projects being considered as part of the Environmental Review Process. You should also explain why you think the current airtrain proposal isn’t a good idea. In terms of the PFC usage, if the FAA approves a plan like this it will create a funding stream to pay for the construction of the tunnel, the tracks, the elevated portions and the station of the airport. It will do this by allowing the Port Authority to collect a Passenger Facility Charge of $4.50 on each plane ticket in and out of the airport. Subway extensions and improvements in Atlanta and Northern Virginia have been funded this way. No state, city, or MTA money would be used for those purposes.

      • Alon Levy

        [I approved all of your comments, but in the future, can you not multi-post? The moderation holds everyone’s first comments as an anti-spam measure; I constantly check emails and approve comments if they’re not bots.]

        • James

          No problem. I wanted to ensure that I personally responded to comments of people who might want to give an official comment to the FAA.

    • adirondacker12800

      Shhh. the rich people on the East Side like being able to get to LaGuardia quick. Even though closing LaGuardia would mean more planes can get in and out of JFK and Newark.

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