Instead of Spending $1.5 Billion on an AirTrain to LaGuardia, How About Better Bus Service?

Image: NY.govImage: NY.gov

The Port Authority’s recently released 10-year Proposed Capital Plan includes a new AirTrain which would connect LaGuardia Airport with Long Island Rail Road and the New York City Subway at Mets-Willets Point station.

Projected to cost $1.5 billion, the project has been subject to criticism since it was introduced at a cost of $450 million just two years ago. For example, in early 2015, Yonah Freemark at The Transport Politic broke down travel times for different modes, finding the proposed AirTrain would be “worthless” in terms of time savings for people traveling from the airport in almost all directions. Ben Kabak of Second Avenue Sagas also wrote about the flaws in the plan and suggested that extending the N train to LGA would be a better solution.

While we like the idea of an N train extension, all projects considered for the Port Authority’s Capital Plan must be considered within the financial constraints of the plan. In other words, the Port Authority should prioritize projects by asking how each can make the most impact for every dollar spent rather than trying to allocate money piecemeal-style across the region, which results in lower overall return on investment. In this case, the Port Authority should be working with the MTA and the New York City Department of Transportation to improve bus access to the airport. Then the Port Authority might find there’s no need to spend $1.5 billion on a new AirTrain.

Image: MTA

Image: MTA

There are already several transit connections to LaGuardia. Although you cannot currently take a train directly to the airport, you can take LIRR, Metro-North or the subway to a bus. In fact, the map above shows there are currently several different bus routes connecting to LaGuardia, and some of them — like the popular Q70 (map below) — can be quite fast.

lga-travel-time

A midday trip from Penn Station to LaGuardia takes 36 minutes using LIRR and the Q70 — recently re-branded as the LaGuardia Link — which provides express service from Woodside/61st Street and Roosevelt Avenue/Jackson Heights stations straight to the airport. This is a great example of getting more by spending less and should be considered on all of the routes that serve LGA. For example:

M60

  • This route is already an SBS route with bus-only lanes on 125th Street
  • Some improvements to consider:
    • Providing an express airport bus starting at W 125 St & St Nicholas Ave (A/B/C/D) that only stops at the transit connections along the route: W 125 St & Lenox Ave (2/3), E 125 St & Madison Ave (Metro-North), E 125 St & Lexington (4/5) and Hoyt Ave S & 31 St (N/W). This would increase speed and accessibility to the airport.
    • Work with NYCDOT to add street improvements like more bus lanes or queue jumps on Astoria Blvd. and 23rd Street in Queens to further increase bus speeds.

Q47, Q48, Q72

  • Work with NYCDOT to add street improvements like more bus lanes or queue jumps.
  • Consider adding express bus service (in addition to already existing local stop service) to connect rail transit to the airport.
    • For example on the Q72, according to Google Maps driving directly would eliminate 10-20 minutes from the trip – essentially cutting the trip time in half.
lga-travel-time-a

Direct Route is 75 percent faster on the highway.

 

lga-travel-time-b

Direct Route is 50 percent faster even on non-highway route.

Q70

  • Work with NYCDOT to add street improvements like more bus lanes or queue jumps, especially between Woodside and Roosevelt Avenue stations.

This is the perfect example of how a little extra thought and coordination with other regional agencies can go a long way towards efficiently meeting Port Authority’s goals. Port Authority and MTA should work together to analyze the feasibility of implementing some or all of these recommendations as a cheaper and likely equally effective alternative to spending $1.5 billion on an AirTrain. Even if the MTA were to pass along the operating and capital costs of these routes, it is very likely that — even if all of the above were implemented — the cost would be a fraction of the $1.5 billion that the Port Authority wants to spend on the AirTrain. The Port Authority’s savings could then be invested in more important projects, like the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

There already exists a variety of two-seat transit rides between Manhattan and LaGuardia. A new AirTrain will simply create one more two-seat ride — with a price tag of $1.5 billion. With the success of the LaGuardia Link providing evidence that a two-seat ride is already possible using existing infrastructure, the Port Authority should be looking at lower cost options like bus service enhancements to increase access to LaGuardia.

5 Comments on "Instead of Spending $1.5 Billion on an AirTrain to LaGuardia, How About Better Bus Service?"

  1. Justin Ryan | January 24, 2017 at 9:42 am |

    Any talk of buses needs to emphasize the horrendous traffic in and around LGA, and in the case of the Q70, the Roosevelt Ave subway station. You can easily spend 30 minutes in gridlock around the terminals, meaning bus service can become sporadic and unpredictable — the otherwise helpful MTA Bus Time becomes useless when a bus 300 feet away takes 15 minutes to arrive. All this means you need to leave an extra hour buffer when traveling by bus to LGA.

    I agree the $1.5B for an AirTrain would be better spent elsewhere, but any workable bus alternative MUST have buses bypassing traffic. Since street space is zero-sum, and politicians drive, setting aside that space — taking it away from drivers — might be politically impossible.

  2. Larry Littlefield | January 24, 2017 at 9:56 am |

    The little Airtrain the wrong way makes no sense.

    What might make sense, if the cost of construction was no so inflated in NY, was the Airtrain New Yorkers were promised when the passenger facility charge was instituted at all three airports — including LaGuardia — in the 1990s.

    An Airtrain from JFK to Jamaica — and onto Flushing and LaGuardia. And onto Queens/Queensboro plaza in Long Island City, where transfer to a wide variety of subways would be possible. And one that could be used to people other than those going to and from the airport. Those going to Citifield from the LIRR for example.

    As it is, the Port Authority is cutting JFK Airtrain service to save money — even though the Airtrain has no driver. That’s pretty outrageous. I found it and the subway connection (just half of the A trains) to be so unreliable I won’t use it. The old JFK express to the bus worked better.

  3. A transit enthusiast I met recently recalled his attempt to get to LaGuardia by transit (M60 from UWS) for the first time a couple months ago—it took 90 minutes and nearly resulted in missing his flight. He said “never again.”

    Any bus connections to LGA need dedicated bus lanes and TSP to ensure they can move fast and bypass auto traffic.

  4. Clark Morris | January 24, 2017 at 2:21 pm |

    What about luggage? While those connecting from the subway may well not have much luggage, those connecting from the LIRR and Metro-North (the M60) may have suitcases. If standard transit buses are used this could cause problems. Possibly premium fare buses with luggage space are an appropriate solution.

  5. Queens Resident | February 7, 2017 at 9:58 am |

    Doubling down on a bad idea. Why not create a spur from the N/W where it crosses the Grand Central Parkway? This is a different proposal than the one defeated 15 years ago, as that was an extension through residential neighborhoods in Astoria. There is plenty of room for tracks to turn and run down GCP. Please can we not do this dumb AirTrain? One seat ride from Manhattan should be priority–that’s where most of the taxis are coming from.

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