Hochul marker on AirTrain sets off ripples


New York Gov. Kathy Hochul threw down a marker when she leaned on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to reconsider the $2.1 billion LaGuardia AirTrain project.

Her move comes amid wider debate about regional infrastructure.

Municipal bond analyst Joseph Krist called it “the first significant capital project to fall victim to a different political calculus in the face of abrupt ‘regime change’ in Albany.”

Hochul succeeded Andrew Cuomo in late August after Cuomo resigned while facing accusations of sexual misconduct.

The AirTrain project at New York’s LaGuardia Airport is on hold for now.

Port Authority of New York and New Jersey

The bi-state Port Authority said Tuesday it would pause the project. Cuomo had championed the elevated transit connector for the airport in northern Queens, for which the Federal Aviation Administration approved three months ago.

“The agency will work in close consultation with independent experts and stakeholders, and will complete its work as expeditiously as possible, consistent with the need for the review to be thorough and rigorous,” the authority said in a statement.

The project already is fourfold over budget and two years late.

“In reality, the project was not clearly supported by advocates while opponents were vocal and relentless,” said Krist, publisher of Muni Credit News. “Without clear support for the project, it was harder to justify the proposed cost and disruption.”

The train would connect the airport, landlocked between Flushing Bay and the Grand Central Parkway and long a motorist’s nightmare, with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Mets-Willets Point station, which serves the No. 7 subway line and the Long Island Rail Road’s Port Washington branch.

Cuomo unveiled the project in 2015 as part of an overall LaGuardia facelift, originally estimating a $450 million cost and a 2019 completion date.

Gov. Kathy Hochul’s push to reconsider the LaGuardia AirTrain has observers wondering what’s next.

Bloomberg News

The airport is undergoing a terminal transformation, as part of a public-private partnership with a significant municipal bond component.

Critics call the route too roundabout, slower than the current MTA bus shuttle and disruptive to the East Elmhurst neighborhood.

Separately, a congestion-pricing plan for Manhattan is under scrutiny during multiple rounds of public hearings throughout the tri-state region.

The plan, which still needs final federal approval, would toll vehicles entering Manhattan south of 60th Street. MTA officials say the plan could generate $15 billion for its five-year capital program.

It has spawned yet another possible border war between New York and New Jersey, whose governor, Phil Murphy, has threatened a “nuclear option” if New Jersey drivers do not receive adequate toll discounts.

Murphy has threatened to leverage his power with the Port Authority, one of the few areas a New Jersey governor can wield clout against his border-state peer.

“One way that a governor can influence Port Authority activities is by vetoing the minutes of meetings,” Krist said. “Such an action could prevent the authority board from approving all budgets and contracts.

“For bondholders it is a procedural issue which should not impact the availability of revenues for debt service repayment.”

Still, the Port Authority has been central to recent large-scale transportation projects such as bridges and airports.

Another Cuomo trophy project that Hochul could re-examine is the Empire Station Complex, the planned transit-and-real estate expansion of Penn Station that has the backing of longtime Cuomo donor Vornado Realty Trust.

Cuomo wanted add up to 10 new office towers nearby.

Some local officials and preservationists are lobbying for Hochul to rethink that project as well. One group, ReThinkNYC, has proposed through-running commuter trains for the station.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has promised a “nuclear option” over congestion pricing.

Bloomberg News

Long Island Rail Road and NJTransit now use Penn Station as a terminal point. Metro-North Railroad, like LIRR an MTA unit, expects to funnel trains there through a $1.6 billion project that could finish by the end of 2022.

Andy Byford, former president of the MTA’s New York City Transit division and now commissioner of Transport for London, cited the benefits of commuter through-running.

“[It] has certainly been a success in London with Thameslink being the most obvious example,” he said in an emailed response.

“While many London-bound services terminate at the various termini that ring the capital, Thameslink has developed into a highly successful north/south through service that links two major airports and that enables customers to traverse London without having to change.”

The Crossrail project, he said, will provide similar benefits on an east-west axis when it opens as the TfL’s new Elizabeth Line early next year.



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