Cuomo, the La Guardia AirTrain and the art of the possible

Photo: Office of Governor Andrew Cuomo

It’s official: Federal authorities have approved the La Guardia AirTrain, and the ground can be broken in a matter of weeks. It’s another victory for Andrew Cuomo, who has become far more of a steamroller than the real one. Governor Steamroller never turned out to be. Among Cuomo’s great infrastructure swings, this one is perhaps unique. It’s – more than Empire Station, more than the Second Avenue line, more than the new (and extremely promising) La Guardia Airport itself – a baby Cuomo, for the simple reason that very few people outside of La Guardia ‘Andrew Cuomo who care about a good transit think this is really the right thing to build.

Stipulated: La Guardia airport needs a rail connection. This has been true since it opened 82 years ago. In reality, getting to La Guardia or coming back from La Guardia by public transport isn’t as miserable as you might think – a short bus ride from the terminals gets you to train 7, so if the going goes as it should, you can be on the subway in 15 minutes and in Manhattan after another 20 – but, as has been widely noted, virtually every other major city allows you to catch a train to the airport. Almost all of them have what’s called a one-seater ride: get on the train at the terminal, get off in the central business district. The Giuliani administration has moved closer to extension of the metro to La Guardia, but the funding was withdrawn after the September 11 attacks. During this more recent push, around 30 rail networks were launched, most being extensions of the N, W, 7 or LIRR, many of them operating on the surface, often ending in an underground station at the airport. There were also a few new trains and trolleys on offer, including the AirTrain. Cuomo seems to have settled on this one a bit sharply, and perhaps thought he could unite his support. He had certain entities aligned with him, such as the Regional Plan Association, “Gridlock Sam” Schwartz, and News day ‘editorial page. The building trades, of course, love it, although they probably would have supported any other plan that similarly required heavy construction.

But the resistance has been savage. Both tabloids are against, and the Times, in his Times-y is the analysis of the news and not the opinion, reported on “concerns”. Also against her is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in whose neighborhood she will be built and who has joked to find oneself for once aligned with the To post. The same goes for Jessica Ramos, the state senator who represents the area around the train’s planned route.

This is, most likely, because it is a flawed plan. The La Guardia route apparently goes halfway to Great Neck, connecting to train 7 at Willets Point, before returning to Manhattan. (Ben Kabak, the excellent public transport writer known as Sagas of the second avenueIt’s nicknamed the Backwards AirTrain.) Its cost has quintupled from an initial $ 500 million to over $ 2 billion, or over $ 1 billion per mile. Its impact on the bay is not entirely negligible, and the Riverkeeper conservation group was able to delay the final FAA approval of the plan – if only briefly – by unearthing documents showing that the environmental review could have been skewed in favor of the governor’s plan. To be fair, an environmental argument can be made against virtually any construction plan, as well as a NIMBY argument. But the vast majority of people who study how we get around (minus the governor, who, say what you want, is clearly serious about public transit) seem to think that a metro extension is a better bet than this train. . Given that we only have one chance on this and will be stuck in it for a century, you’d think we’d go with a more direct and widely regarded plan as the best.

Why, then, is Cuomo so stuck on this, so willing to topple all the opposition rather than support a much more useful plan? One thing we do know about him is that he believes a lot in the art of the possible. We all make, to some extent, important decisions this way: at one end of the spectrum you have the fabulous solution that probably cannot be achieved, and at the other end you have the practical solution that is without. joy and not very good and cheap and can be achieved with hardly any effort. Indeed, sometimes we all choose a place somewhere along this continuum. Cuomo systematically chooses the thing he can do soon using the power within his grasp. He memorably demanded that the first phase of the Second Avenue subway be opened on time, whip his managers to do it before its deadline of January 1, 2017; the same goes for the Moynihan train room. (Both have made their deadlines.) The project supports its favorite image, that of neoliberal Robert Moses – a Moses without rank and unvarnished racism, one who nominally listens, at least a little, to the neighborhoods he affects. . (Although he plans to run rail tracks through East Elmhurst, he will probably never explicitly tell residents that sometimes you have to “make your way with a meat ax. ”)

Cuomo seems to have classified any plans that are smarter or more effective as unbuildable, for one reason or another, leaving him with that as the best solution he thinks he can achieve. Subway extensions cost several times as much as the AirTrain, which is probably why he looked elsewhere (although the cost of the AirTrain has swelled to the point that an extension of the N train would now cost maybe 50%. more than the AirTrain). Avoiding the Metro also avoids the MTA, a huge, sprawling organization that, although under Cuomo’s control, has entrenched requirements and habits that tend to make construction slow and expensive. Bus-only lanes, while promising and relatively inexpensive, do not have the panache or permanence of a rail line, and they typically require something (traffic lanes) with a dedicated constituency (car owners and parking lots) is withdrawn, while the railway line is new. Other stratagems touched various other points of physical or organizational resistance. In the traditional maxim “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”, the AirTrain was the good, or maybe the good enough. You really wish we could do a little better than that for our $ 2 billion.

Given that this is almost certain to happen now, there is this consolation: New Yorkers have, collectively, learned to live with a lot of non-ideal systems. The metro itself is the most obvious example. It was built by three separate and competing private companies, merged and taken over by the government in 1940. No sane planner would have mapped out the maze of interconnections that make up, say, Times Square shutdown. We tolerate it; we made it work; and if we end up with a not-quite-ideal AirTrain that works until the 22nd century, so will we. “I want real projects rather than theoretical”, Cuomo Told journalists recently interviewed on alternatives such as the extension of the metro. “When the world is perfect, then I will.” AirTrain technology has also been tested in its Kennedy and Newark counterparts, and there it has proven to be pretty good. We know – Cuomo knows – that we can build it because we’ve already done it, twice. If he shows up and wins another term, he might still be there to cut the ribbon.


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