FAA considering pausing LaGuardia’s AirTrain project, after lawsuit fi…

The Federal Aviation Administration is weighing whether to pause LaGuardia’s AirTrain project but first will need to determine whether any possible negative ramifications could arise from a delay, according to a letter the FAA sent to the Port Authority.

Riverkeeper, Guardians of Flushing Bay and Ditmars Boulevard Block Association filed a lawsuit against the FAA on Sept. 20, requesting that the agency stop the controversial $2 billion people mover at LaGuardia Airport. The groups say the FAA failed to consider different projects while taking waterfront parkland along a 2,100-foot stretch of Malcolm X Promenade at Flushing Bay.

What to know

  • In July, the Federal Aviation Administration approved the Port Authority’s environmental review of the AirTrain, which aims to connect LaGuardia to the LIRR’s Willets Point stop via a 1.5-mile-long rail system.
  • Two environmental groups and a neighborhood block association sued the FAA last month claiming it failed to consider different projects while taking waterfront along a 2,100-foot stretch of Malcolm X Promenade at Flushing Bay.
  • Two state senators are demanding Gov. Kathy Hochul stop the project and will be holding a news conference this week.
  • The FAA is mulling the possibility of a suspension but first needs the Port Authority to explain whether there would be any fallout from a delay. 

The project, pushed by former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, is expected to carry 6 million to 10 million air travelers from LaGuardia to Willets Point in Queens, where they could connect to a 7 aim or hop on the Long Island Rail Road’s Port Washington line.

Opponents of the project believe the rail’s route inconveniences Manhattan-bound riders who would be forced to head farther east than the airport. Long Islanders needing to connect to other LIRR lines would have to travel west to the Woodside stop.

“The layout is like spaghetti. We never liked the project. People want to go to New York without having to sweat, and there are better options,” said State Sen. Leroy Comrie (D-Queens), chairman of the Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions. “There is a new opportunity to design something more environmentally and transportation friendly that would increase opportunities for both the airline passenger and airline worker.”

The FAA greenlighted the plan in July after approving the Port Authority’s environmental review, which included three public hearings during which 80% of the more than 120 people who participated expressed sustain for the project, according to A Better Way to LGA, a coalition of business, planning and labor groups supporting the project.

Riverkeeper senior attorney Mike Dulong states in the lawsuit that the FAA applied selective criteria, unfairly eliminating other transportation proposals, such as a ferry service. He hopes the project is halted closest until an environmental review with a meaningful evaluation of alternatives is conducted.

“I appreciate that they are reviewing this. Any construction that goes forward now I believe would have meaningful impact on the community and for people who use the park. This will allow us an opportunity to look for the best projects,” Dulong said in a phone interview.

Weighing a stay

In response to the lawsuit requesting an administrative stay, the FAA sent the Port Authority a letter on Thursday suggesting it is considering the possibility pending a review from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, where the lawsuit was filed.

In the letter, addressed to Huntley Lawrence, Port Authority acting chief officer and director of aviation, the FAA writes: “In weighing whether to approve Petitioners’ request for an administrative stay, the FAA considers several factors including ‘whether issuance of the stay will significantly injure the other parties interested in the proceeding’ … consequently to fairly consider the Petitioners’ request, the FAA invites the PANYNJ to explain any possible injuries it could experience as a consequence of the FAA approving a stay of the ROD [record of decision].”

The Port Authority has until Oct. 12 to submit a response.

During a news briefing in Manhattan on Thursday, Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton defended the project, saying it underwent an exhaustive review.

“And it [the FAA] has specifically analyzed all the alternatives that had been suggested, and they endorsed the current route, which avoids any heavy construction in the community, which is why that route was chosen. It avoids any taking private character,” Cotton said.

The project is expected to create 3,000 union jobs, add $500 million in opportunities to minority- and women-owned businesses, and cut traffic. Port Authority capital, along with passenger facility charges tacked on to airport travelers, would fund the project.

Hochul: ‘Looking closely’

In a letter addressed to Gov. Kathy Hochul, Comrie and State Sen. Jessica Ramos (D-Queens) demanded Hochul put the brakes on the project until “a credible, transparent and equitable alternatives examination is performed.”

“The transit assistance is negligible, and the environmental assistance questionable,” the senators wrote in the letter dated Sept. 30, while raising concerns the selection course of action may have been skewed. They also noted that since the plan was started in 2017, the FAA has revised its rules so that “rail lines that do not exclusively serve the airport are now eligible to be funded by Passenger Facility Charges.” Comrie said this could open up other transportation options that were before not possible.

Comrie and Ramos will be holding a news conference on the project this week.

Hochul told reporters during a news conference Thursday that she had spoken to Cotton about the project. “My personal views on the AirTrain is that this is something that can be examined,” Hochul said. “In terms of our priorities right now, I need to make sure that we have the resources. Our funding has dropped considerably for many of the projects that have been on the table, but I also know that we need to continue building our way out of this crisis. So I’m looking closely at that.”

LaGuardia is the only major airport on the East Coast without direct access to a rail link.

“Our hope has always been to make sure that a project that is going to take parkland away from an environmental justice community — is the best project for the vicinity and one that has the least impact on local community members and the ecosystem and that’s why we need a study to show that,” Dulong said.

Thomas Grech, president of the Queens Chamber of Commerce and co-chair of A Better Way to LGA, said that after attending all the public hearings, he felt the AirTrain was the best solution for the community.

“There are always naysayers. This could be a gateway and a game changer for growth for the complete vicinity, and the jobs are going to be fantastic,” Grech said.

Both the FAA and the Port Authority separately said they could not comment on pending litigation.

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