Why Flashy Plans for LaGuardia Don't Impress Transit Advocates

If an outdated airport is “un-New York,” according to Governor Andrew Cuomo, then what’s a crumbling subway system?

Image NY Governor's Office
A rendering of a new and improved LaGuardia Airport. (NY Governor's Office)

A few weeks back, a group of New York City transit advocates took New York Governor Andrew Cuomo for a ride on the subway. Not the actual governor, mind you. He’s more likely to have his flesh-and-blood presence transported by an SUV than the IRT, and had ignored repeated invitations from the group, the Riders Alliance, to come on down into the nation’s largest public transportation system.

No, this was a life-size cardboard cutout of the state’s chief executive made by the Riders Alliance. They did it to drive home a point about just how oblivious the governor is to the stress and decay that riders encounter daily on city transit.

The advocates also wanted to highlight Cuomo’s reluctance to provide a stable source of capital funding for the aging Metropolitan Transportation Authority network, which currently moves millions of passengers each day around the city and its suburbs—powering the economy that is at the core of New York State’s prosperity. The subways alone carry 5.6 million people every weekday.

“There are millions of commuters in this city,” says one rider in this Streetfilms video about the Riders Alliance action. “And they’re not getting high-quality service.”

No cardboard cutout was necessary on Monday, when Cuomo showed up in the flesh to announce a $4 billion plan to overhaul another piece of aging transportation infrastructure in the city: LaGuardia Airport. At his side was Vice President Joe Biden, who last year famously described LaGuardia as a “third world” airport.

The plan the governor unveiled envisions a complete rebuilding of the much-maligned facility, which is jammed onto a sliver of land between the Grand Central Parkway and Flushing Bay. Its several scattered, outdated terminal buildings would be replaced by a brand-new central terminal, and added taxiway capacity would provide some relief for the facility’s notorious delays. Half of the $4 billion cost would be privately funded, according to the governor, with Delta Air Lines as a major partner.

The “slow, dated” and “almost universally derided” La Guardia of today, proclaimed Cuomo, is “un-New York.”

As soon as the press conference ended, the city’s transit advocates started finding fault with the governor’s priorities. “If an airport that’s slow and dated and universally derided is considered un-New York,” asked Ben Kabak at the blog Second Avenue Sagas, “what exactly does that make the subway system and remainder of the transit network that millions use on a daily basis to navigate around the city?”

Ben Fried at Streetsblog (where I used to work) asked the same question, adding, “New York’s failure to impress tourists who fly Delta is a problem Cuomo wants to personally address. New York’s crushing traffic congestion, unpredictable subways, miserably crowded platforms, and slow buses are just part of the city’s charm.”

Workaday transit connections are notably lacking from the LaGuardia plan. While it calls for more parking, a potential ferry service, and a pricy new AirTrain link to eastern Queens, it would not provide for a simple, one-seat subway ride to the airport from any part of the city.

The easiest way to reach a new LaGuardia Airport (above, a rendering) would still be by car. (NY Governor’s Office)

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was not at the event, an absence that struck many observers as glaring. It was, perhaps, an indication of strained relations between the mayor and the governor, and a sign that the city’s priorities might not be in accord with those of Albany. Advocates say Cuomo’s emphasis on the LaGuardia renovation and another project, the replacement of the Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson, are symptomatic of a transportation vision that fails to recognize the importance of the MTA to the region’s ability to thrive and remain competitive.

“Eight days ago the MTA released a video showing how outdated our transit infrastructure has become,” open-government activist Noel Hidalgo wrote me in an email. “LaGuardia was built AFTER some of our current signal technology was installed. Currently, the MTA is salvaging 80-year-old equipment to keep our system running. With our buses stuck in Uber-clogged streets and the subway's reliability in question, I have taken to biking to my most important meetings. I'd rather show up on time, soaked, than be stuck. We need money in public transit, not private transport.”

The question of how to fully fund the MTA’s $32 billion five-year capital plan, which has a gap of some $15 billion, has been a matter of contention for months. Most recently, Cuomo said the state would increase its contribution to $8.3 billion, but demanded that the city also increase its share, to an unprecedented $3.2 billion.

Cuomo has also refused to consider a plan called MoveNY, which would institute a completely revamped system of tolls and raise $1.5 billion annually for the city’s transportation system. Citing the downfall of a completely different “congestion pricing” scheme in the state legislature in 2008, Cuomo said, “I don't see how it would ever pass." But as Andrew Hawkins at Crain’s New York Business points out, the governor’s objection could easily be seen as “disingenuous”:

Not only has the plan changed to include outer-borough toll reduction, but the dynamic in the legislature has changed as well since 2008...

The perception among some transit advocates is that Cuomo favors a glitzy new airport (above, a rendering of the new LaGuardia) over bus and rail upgrades. (NY Governor’s Office)

The perception among New York transit advocates is that Cuomo is willing to put his considerable political muscle behind the LaGuardia renovation because it’s the kind of high-profile, glitzy project that gets him in the headlines. Air travel is also a form of transportation that the governor actually uses himself. When it comes to the more workaday issues of the subways, commuter trains, and buses, Cuomo doesn’t seem willing to spend his political capital to get them funded.

Here’s how Kabak put it at Second Avenue Sagas:

In terms of bang for your buck, an overhaul of the Port Authority Bus Terminal or a real plan to rebuild Penn Station and start moving on trans-Hudson tunnels would affect far more daily travelers than a rebuild of LaGuardia airport, and the dollars would be comparable. But Cuomo doesn’t talk about these proposals because he doesn’t take buses or trains; he flies and he drives, and as the lack of public process shows, he doesn’t really care what anyone else thinks. He wants it; it becomes reality.

Meanwhile, day in and day out, 8 million New Yorkers and the millions more suburbanites who commute to the city daily face packed platforms, a steady drumbeat of fare hikes, and service that is increasingly unreliable—with subway delays up about 20 percent this year over last. The threat is that eroding subway, train, and bus service without a change in the tolling system will push more people to use private vehicles or car-sharing services, increasing congestion and exacerbating the spiral of disinvestment from transit.

As Eric Jaffe suggested here last year, the people in charge of infrastructure investments can’t really understand the systems they are funding if they never use them. Clearly, it’s past time for Cuomo to swipe himself in at a turnstile and take a few rides with the rest of us.

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.