A proposal by the Port Authority to move a planned LaGuardia Airport AirTrain farther from nearby neighborhoods is doing little to mollify East Elmhurst residents, and only served to raise more objections from environmentalists and park advocates last week.
Speaking on March 28, PA representatives said they are shifting their preferred route for a train between Willets Point and the airport from the median of the Grand Central Parkway to just inside the boundary of the Flushing Bay Promenade, a waterfront park.
A full presentation was made at the regular meeting of the New York Community Airport Roundtable’s LaGuardia Airport section. The meeting took place at Vaughn College, which sits just across the GCP from LaGuardia.
Matt DiScenna, the PA’s senior project manager for the AirTrain project, said the new proposal would allow the PA to lower the elevated tracks’ profile considerably in places where they would no longer have to accommodate the height of pedestrian bridges that cross the GCP.
“It also moves it about 100 feet from local neighborhoods,” he said.
The PA’s intent is to establish faster links between Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal — the latter upon completion of the East Side Access project — and LaGuardia.
DiScenna said the agency will encourage use of the Long Island Rail Road to the existing station adjacent to the No. 7 subway station at Mets-Willets Point and then the AirTrain, which would run as regularly as four-minute intervals during peak operation. Use of the slower, more crowded but less expensive 7 line would be discouraged, though some residents were not convinced.
Under legislation that passed in Albany last year with Gov. Cuomo’s strong backing, the state is authorized to take parkland for the project if deemed necessary.
DiScenna said the PA would be committed to repairing damage to the park around any new infrastructure, and would provide for other improvements to the Promenade and on the waterfront farther east along the shoreline.
He also said their officials are examining such features as solar panels atop any new infrastructure where possible.
Nuala O’Doherty, president of the Jackson Heights Beautification Group, wasn’t impressed.
She said of all 51 Council districts in the city, hers ranks 50th in terms of parkland.
“We literally have children playing on the grass in Landing Lights Park,” she said, referring to a patch of green on 25th Avenue between 79th and 80th streets.
“We love the Promenade; you’re taking that away,” she said. “We love our view of Flushing Bay; you’re taking that away. We love our 7 train; you’re taking that away.”
Frank Taylor, president of the Ditmars Boulevard Block Association, once again opposed any air train, regardless of the route, as unnecessary and bad for the neighborhoods. He also has numerous members who say the ongoing rebuilding of LaGuardia already has damaged their homes. Taylor was less than enthused with the prospect of more construction, particularly pile driving that would be needed to support elevated tracks.
“The monitors they use measure vibrations on the surface, not below ground,’ Taylor aid. “That is where our homes are being damaged.”
DiScenna and Richard Smyth, the project redevelopment director for the ongoing rebuilding of LaGuardia, said that as always, the PA would work with residents and monitor the possibility of any damage from the new work.
Smyth took exception to Taylor’s contention that ongoing damage claims were not being addressed.
He said to date the agency has taken 21 complaints from the neighborhood, and have already hand-delivered checks to five homeowners based on PA engineers’ recommendations. He said three have been dismissed, that the others are at various stages of review and that they will examine all other claims.
“That’s a standing offer,” Smyth said.
DiScenna said the need for another way to get to the airport is real and that an air train setup is the most feasible.
“Fifty percent of the traffic to or from LaGuardia is from or to Manhattan; 25 percent is from Midtown,” he said.
He said utilizing LIRR service would mean a 15-minute ride between Manhattan and Willets Point, and a ride of five and six minutes between Willets and the airport. PA projections are that the move would remove 28,000 cars from the road per week and carry between 6.6 and 10 million riders per year, while avoiding the burden on the subway that O’Doherty raised.
DiScenna also said the prospect of moving LaGuardia passengers slightly past the airport to the southeast and bringing them back should not be considered a flaw in the PA’s plans.
“Like any other trip you take, it’s about travel time,” he said.
Marie Jenet, an environmental specialist with the Federal Aviation Administration, said her agency will not be a rubber stamp for any final PA recommendations.
“We will do our own study and it will be independent,” she said.
While the meeting’s agenda was not totally committed to the AirTrain, a number of environmental groups did get a chance to speak. Rebecca Pryor of both Riverkeeper and Guardians of Flushing Bay was pleased with that.
“Though I do wish we all had gotten more time,” she said afterward.
Pryor said her groups’ interest is in getting the PA and FAA to examine not only all possible routes for an AirTrain but also possible alternatives, including no AirTrain at all. She also had another worry in reference to time.
“The [Port Authority’s] timeline for this study is one year,” she said, calling that an accelerated schedule for a project of such potential impact.