AirTrain’s opponents talk strategy, options 1

Lynn Kelly of New Yorkers for Parks discusses options residents have in fighting a proposed AirTrain to LaGuardia Airport, or what they might be able to extract in return. Other speakers included moderator Jarret Murphy, left, attorney Michael Dulong and advocates Nick Sifuentes, Frank Taylor and Leticia Ochoa.

If supporters of an AirTrain between LaGuardia Airport and the No. 7 subway and Long Island Rail Road lines at Mets/Willets Point are expecting what tennis fans would call a walkover, they might want to check the attendance sheet from a meeting in East Elmhurst on Tuesday night.

About 90 residents braved a sleet storm to hear a panel of environmentalists, transportation experts, area civic leaders and homeowners discuss why and how residents who oppose the train can fight it.

The Federal Aviation Administration is preparing to conduct an environmental impact study. A law passed by the state last year recommends one of three possible routes: running over the median on the Grand Central Parkway; over the Flushing Promenade, the park along Flushing Bay; or over the water of the bay itself.

The event took place at the New York LGA Marriott Hotel on Ditmars Boulevard. Panelists included Frank Taylor, president of the Ditmars Boulevard Block Association; Lynn Kelly of New Yorkers for Parks; Nick Sifuentes, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, and Leticia Ochoa of Queens Neighborhoods United.

The moderator was Jarret Murphy of the news outlet City Limits. Michael Dulong, the senior attorney for Riverkeeper, a group that advocates for clean waterways, also spoke.

Taylor, whose association members have a long list of grievances regarding ongoing construction at LaGuardia, prefers a fourth option.

“No AirTrain at all,” he said. “This is not an international airport. It has two runways.”

The Grand Central Parkway route appears to be the favored approach by the state — Gov. Cuomo is backing an AirTrain plan — as it already controls much of the land that would be needed. Experts have told the Chronicle that constructing a 30-foot high, 35-foot-wide track structure over the Promenade near or over the water would involve a slew of time-consuming studies and approvals from federal agencies; and multiple speakers on Tuesday said the FAA’s stated one-year time line for completing the environmental review is an accelerated one for a project of this magnitude.

All the panelists acknowledged that the airport needs improved access to and from Manhattan. Taylor and others said better bus service and expanded ferry availability both are viable options.

Sifuentes said bus routes, if done properly, could give airport the speed and convenience of a quick trip to the airport at a fraction of the estimated $1 to $2 billion cost of a rail link, provided the service is regular, fast and, preferably, free.

“Every major project has some necessary pain,” he said. “But there has to be some benefit to the community when it’s done.”

He and Taylor saw little benefit of the AirTrain to East Elmhurst residents.

And while extending the N/W elevated subway line has been suggested and rejected in the past, Sifuentes said even that could be more direct and more beneficial than a LaGuardia-Willets rail link.

“At least the residents there would have the benefit of new subway stops,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Port Authority in an email to the Chronicle said the AirTrain is absolutely necessary for transportation and environmental challenges on the horizon.

“It is morally indefensible not to be planning mass rail transit to LaGuardia at a time of severe increases in congestion, travel times and the impacts of climate change," she wrote. "The proposed link would not only provide a reliable, 30-minute trip between midtown and the airport for upwards of 10 million riders per year but take as many as 1.5 million cars off the road annually as well.

This means surrounding communities will see decreased traffic and less parking by airport passengers and workers.  We have held extensive discussions with community groups and elected officials over the past year which has provided invaluable input as we’ve advanced planning.  We continue to welcome this dialogue, and there will be multiple forums for additional input once the federally-run environmental review process gets underway.”

Dulong said Riverkeeper’s aim is to make sure the FAA study looks at all possible alternatives, and, when problems might prove unavoidable how to mitigate them.

“And if not, we’ve been known to file lawsuits,” he said.

Kelly said that while the first preference might be to leave the Promenade as it is, some communities in the past have benefited by requiring tradeoffs for parkland, usually by replacing it elsewhere, and often getting other concessions and projects for public green space like accompanying improvements to other parks and playgrounds.

“You need to have a list of demands at the beginning.” Sifuentes said.

Warren Schreiber, a member of Community Board 7 and a longtime advocate for the rights of condominium and co-op owners, was attending the meeting as a private citizen.

Speaking only for himself, the veteran of a few hundred thousand similar confrontations with government and quasi-governmental agencies at just about every level was impressed with the panel’s presentation — and the turnout.

“They got a lot of people to come out in this weather,” he said.

This story was updated to include comments from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

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