Does NYC really need a one seat ride to its airports?
Continuing on his infrastructure grand tour Governor Andrew Cuomo announced last month that he was proposing a $10 billion overhaul of JFK Airport. Included in the proposal are plans for expanding the Van Wyck Expressway (how “green” of him) and finding ways to expand and improve the AirTrain. From the report’s website:
Increase the capacity from two to four cars per train and increase its frequency – These changes would allow the AirTrain to roughly double its capacity and handle more than 40 million passengers annually.
Improve the east of connection from the Subway or LIRR by top-to-bottom rebuild of interconnections at Jamaica and Sutphin Blvd – Completely overhaul the subway and Long Island Railroad connection to the JFK AirTrain. These improvements would include essential modern amenities such as high-performance elevators and escalators, charging stations and expanded walkways. A modernized mezzanine will create simpler navigation and smoother transfers to the AirTrain including improved wayfinding and LED flight status screens. Images of the transformed Jamaica Station and AirTrain connection can be found here.
That sounds affordable and effective. But the next line is what really grabbed transit activists:
Explore the feasibility of one seat ride to JFK – JFK is one of the only major airports in the world that does not offer travelers a one seat ride from its city center. Therefore, the panel recommends that the MTA and its partners jointly explore the feasibility of a one-seat ride to JFK.
A one seat ride from an airport to a city center is considered best practices for developed countries. Transit access in general is considered a basic necessity for airports but this is something that American cities leave as an afterthought. LAX is famously impossible to get to via the Metro even though the Green Line terminates relatively close. NYC had subway plans in the works for connections to Floyd Bennett Field (before LaGuardia built his own airport) and when the IND Queens Blvd subway was built provisions were added for a line down Van Wyck Blvd which could have easily been extended to then Idlewild Airport (today JFK Airport) until Robert Moses chose to build an expressway instead. In the 1990s plans were floated to extend the N train to LaGuardia but were shot down by local politicians. The MTA once ran the Train-to-the-Plane but this proved unpopular given the need to transfer to a bus at Howard Beach. The Port Authority built the AirTrain, which opened in 2003, and has proved much more successful even though it still requires a transfer from the subway or LIRR.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s the newly formed MTA proposed sending the LIRR to JFK via the abandoned Rockaway Branch and even a branch of the LIRR through Baisley Pond Park in South Jamaica. Even as the Port Authority was designing the AirTrain there were proposals to extend it to lower Manhattan via the LIRR Atlantic Branch and then over the Manhattan Bridge or via a new tunnel. These proposals had high price tags and would have had a negative impact on existing subway service.
Right after the Governor made this announcement the Regional Plan Association put out a colorful breakdown of various one seat ride options which Alon Levy did a very good job of ripping apart. I’m not here to repeat everything he said but rather throw a couple ideas out.
As New York has bounced back from 9/11 the growth of subway and LIRR ridership has meant that more and more commuters are coming up against more and more tourists (with their luggage) in ever packed train cars. There is no doubt that better transit is needed but the idea that we need to invest billions of dollars to give tourists a smoother trip into the city seems completely misplaced. I also question the very idea that we need to have a one seat ride to JFK Airport considering the size of NYC. Governor Cuomo has received many donations from the hotel industry in the city which is why he has supported legislation clamping down on AirBNB. No doubt it is the hotel lobby which is also pushing for a one seat ride to ferry tourists and business travelers directly from the airport into their hotel rooms as seamlessly as possible. In essence a one seat ride to the airport is a give away to the hotel industry while citizens of the city see only packed trains with increasing fares. And a one seat ride in this case means a one seat ride to midtown Manhattan which completely overlooks the needs of travelers coming or going ANYWHERE ELSE IN THE CITY OR REGION. AirBNB isn’t going anywhere which means travelers have more options for lodging and therefore will always need to have a multiple seat ride to/from the airport.
I like the idea of the AirTrain as it serves its purpose very well. Getting to the AirTrain via the A, E, or LIRR can difficult for locals as well as travelers and segregating travelers (and their luggage) from everyday commuters would free up space on trains which can be packed at all hours of the day. But getting the AirTrain into Manhattan would prove to be far more costly than it’s worth. The AirTrain was supposedly designed to allow it to run on the LIRR tracks with the same rail gauge and third rail power. This means that sending the AirTrain to Manhattan via the LIRR would be the most obvious answer except that LIRR runs 10 car trains at high speeds while AirTrains run at 60mph max and usually have only 2 cars per train. Connecting the AirTrain to the LIRR and sending it to Penn Station would be a logistical nightmare for LIRR trains. The alternative option of having full length LIRR cars serve JFK Airport wouldn’t be worth the cost as most trains would be empty and the track curves along the existing AirTrain are far too tight. Platform slots at Penn Station are already full and it won’t be until at least 2022 when the massive East Side Access project opens a new LIRR at Grand Central would there even be space for airport trains.
But East Side Access will do something else; Since LIRR will now have more flexibility to terminate trains in midtown the need for the downtown Brooklyn Atlantic Terminal will be almost eliminated, save for the passengers who actually use it. While no exact plans have been put in place yet it has been speculated that the LIRR will, once East Side Access is open, reduce the Atlantic Branch to a shuttle service between Atlantic Terminal and Jamaica. If this does come to pass then this would be a perfect fit for the AirTrain which is already a glorified shuttle. While Atlantic Terminal does not reach Manhattan it is served by 11 subway lines. AirTrain riders now are forced to catch the A or the E, already packed express trains, but if it terminated at Atlantic Terminal travelers would have a buffet of subway options from which to chose. Additionally the service would still act as a shuttle to Jamaica for existing commuters. The LIRR ticketing space would be converted into a check-in facility. The existing Nostrand Ave and East New York stations would be closed to speed up the trip. All that would be needed is a new ramp connecting the existing AirTrain to the LIRR Atlantic Branch at Jamaica. Atlantic Terminal would give the city the most bang for its buck: offer a fast ride directly to the airport with connections to the most number of subway lines, offer Jamaica bound commuters an equal service replacement, and frees up space on packed A and E trains in Queens.
Politicians and the RPA would argue that the AirTrain would then need to be extended into Manhattan but I still disagree. Lower Manhattan has changed considerably in the last 15 years and is much more residential. AirBNB as well as the rise of low cost hotels around the city means that travelers have more options than ever before. Midtown transit centers like Penn Station, Times Sq, and Grand Central are already overflowing with commuters and tourists alike and Atlantic Terminal offers a place to transfer trains which is far less crowded. Express subway trains serve Atlantic Terminal which can bring travelers to midtown, east and west side, quickly. If the AirTrain went to Penn Station it would still require a complicated crosstown journey (the less confused, lost travelers at Penn Station the better). According to Google Maps it takes 48 min to get form Terminal 4 at JFK to Atlantic Terminal via the AirTrain and LIRR, by subway it takes 20 min longer. This, however, requires transferring at Atlantic Terminal and then Jamaica Station, and by subway means transferring multiple times in stations which can be hard to navigate with luggage, which all adds additional time and confusion. Extending the AirTrain to Atlantic Terminal may not save much time in terms of train speed but it would remove the burdensome transfer at Jamaica. A one seat ride would be nice, no doubt, but the cost can’t be justified so a two seat ride is still far better than a three seat ride.
The Request For Proposal for the design of the proposed LaGuardia AirTrain was just announced which means the state and Port Authority is looking for an engineering firm to design the new structure. It’s too early to tell yet what the new AirTrain will look like but many transit activists have come out against the AirTrain. Two years ago I wrote a post which tentatively supported the AirTrain but the most obvious choice in the matter would be to extend the N/W trains to LaGuardia via 19 Av in northern Astoria. Politics being what they are the local NIMBYs won’t even get to shoot the proposal down since Gov Cuomo is picking the Port Authority to built their own line via the Grand Central Parkway. The reasoning, I assume, is that since the PA owns LaGuardia they should also provide the service to the airport and collect any revenue that goes along with it.
New York is littered with bad planning decisions that were built because a particular politician got their way. I have no doubt that the LaGuardia AirTrain will be built as an elevated shuttle between the airport and Willets Point for a transfer to the 7 and LIRR. The service will be popular enough, though I’m sure the M60 and Q70 buses will still transport just as many travelers. But I see a future for the little shuttle which may seem odd at first until you look back at the subways which were planned and never built. In 1929 the city, as part of the infamous IND Second System, proposed extending the BMT Astoria Line (today’s N/W trains) down Ditmars Blvd and Asotira Av to 112th St where it would jog south until it reached what is today the Long Island Expressway, continuing east to what today is Francis Lewis Blvd. What I am proposing is that after the AirTrain is built the MTA could buy the line and incorporate it into a larger extension of the N/W trains which would follow a similar route.
When the original BMT Astoria Line extension was proposed in 1929 most of this area of Queens was still developing and was farmland; Flushing Park wouldn’t exist for another decade. The modern extension would extend the N/W from Ditmars Blvd up to 19 Av where it would veer east to 45th St where it would dive underground to a new station under LaGuardia Airport. Trains would continue east to a new portal that would connect to the AirTrain. Assuming the AirTrain is built to a location between the 7 and LIRR stations at Willets Point the new line could easily be extended east along the ROW of the long defunct Central RR of LI which was converted into the Kissena Park corridor by Robert Moses. The AirTrain terminal at Willets Point would then be expanded to be a terminal for W trains while N trains would continue east; N trains would run peak express using the third track between Queensboro Plaza and Astoria Blvd.
There are many different route and construction options available, whether built along an elevated viaduct through the park or as a cut and cover tunnel, but ideally the line would make it’s way southeast until the Long Island Expressway where it would continue until Springfield Blvd. As there is precious little land left for new train yards the park space would be perfect for a new underground yard somewhere along the route. Incorporating the LaGuardia AirTrain into a larger subway expansion would be a boon for locals and travelers alike and would actually reduce crowding on the 7 train rather than adding more travelers with their luggage onto already packed subway cars. This, however, would take the state, city and MTA all working together for a common goal, something that sadly is impossible under our current circumstances.
A second subway option would be to use the abandoned (i.e. never used) terminal at Roosevelt Ave to extend the M train through Jackson Heights and East Elmhurst to the airport. The Roosevelt Terminal was built for a future line to the Rockaways and was never used. The terminal itself is on the eastern end of the mezzanine at Roosevelt Ave and is an island station with tiles but no tracks. The trackway leading east connects to the Queens Blvd Line bellow and turns south at 78th St. Instead the new branch would use the trackway connections to the existing subway and turn east down 41 Av, then northeast down Baxter Ave and finally north under 83 St finally turning towards LaGuardia Central Terminal at 23 St. While this extension would be the most expensive of the lot it would also serve as a local subway line for the undeserved areas of East Elmhurst and Jackson Heights north of Roosevelt Ave. The line would be more politically acceptable as it would be a subway the whole route and do more for local residents than the other options.