Subway to LaGuardia Made Possible by FAA Rule Change

An antiquated rule that led to the Port Authority choosing an airtrain over a subway extension to LaGuardia Airport is no more. Eliminating the rule is a game-changer for U.S. cities looking to build a direct rail connection to their airports, which is already the standard practice in Europe and many cities in Asia. Before rushing ahead with a $2 billion airtrain that already has a reputation as a boondoggle, the Port Authority must reevaluate how it plans to connect transit riders with LaGuardia.

Last month, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) changed the rule that had been used as a primary argument against any proposal for extending the NYC Subway to LaGuardia Airport. The statute allowed airports, with the FAA’s permission, to charge a small Passenger Facility Charge (PFC) for airport improvements. Revenue generated by this statute–a maximum of $4.50 per airline ticket, which has not been increased in 20 years–could be used for specific types of internal airport improvements only, such as airtrains.

According to a 2018 analysis of LGA AirTrain alternatives by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ), “Funding using a Passenger Facility Charge (PFC) and/or airline contributions is necessary for this Project, and therefore, the selected alternative would have to comply with the FAA’s requirements for the use of such funding sources.”

In other words, while an extension of the subway to the airport was determined by PANYNJ to be technically feasible, choosing this alternative would disqualify the project from funding through PFCs—that is, until last month.

One of three subway extension alternatives evaluated by PANYNJ (Source: PANYNJ)

Getting funding for major transportation projects is a long and difficult process, so PFCs provide cities and airports a convenient way to fund airtrain projects that connect airport terminals to mass transit. The problem is that train-to-train-to-plane connections, while better than nothing, are incredibly inconvenient for commuters. Not only does it force an additional transfer and long walks with luggage, it requires paying an additional fare. If you’re a traveling family, those costs add up quickly, which then encourages more people to drive instead of using transit–the exact opposite of the project’s intended goal.

The preferred alignment of AirTrain LGA, which will connect to the NYC Transit 7 Line and LIRR Port Washington Line at Willets Point Station (Source: PANYNJ)

The new rule, however, makes an extension of NYC Transit’s N/W Line to LaGuardia eligible for funding by PFCs, with costs prorated typically by estimating the percentage of ridership that would use the new airport station. 

The Port Authority should now reconsider a more direct subway connection before spending billions on an airtrain that is out of the way and offers only minimal time-saving benefits. Furthermore, any urban transportation project of this scale is going to inevitably cause some degree of community disruption, but this must be appropriately weighed against the project’s overall improvements for the city and the regional transportation network. The easiest option, while tempting, is not always the most strategic one.

1 Comment on "Subway to LaGuardia Made Possible by FAA Rule Change"

  1. The subway alternatives are all too slow and expensive. Plans that involve extending an existing elevated subway line are complicated by local physical constraints and problems with the grade and lateral alignments, both. Too circuitous – and a very complicated and intrusive operation to build it. The planners who created the 65 or so alternatives that were considered of course had an intended outcome, which tends toward retrogression: i.e. you’ve got to go out to Willets Point, and then BACK to the airport. The three so-called “Rail Alternatives” (not including the subway ones) to quote my public comment “…are not bona fide proposals to design a feasible rail alternative…” To my knowledge mine is the ONLY feasible rail alternative that’s been proposed, excepting the Preferred Alternative, which takes you quite a ways out of the way if you’re just trying to get to the airport: Two additional alternatives are described at the linked-to page, along with my critiques of the current plan, and the non-starter rail proposals:

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