NYTIP INSIDER – on lga and ny’s asthmaway addiction

So the Port Authority released their recommendations (PDF file) for LaGuardia Airport (LGA) transit alternatives, along with a brief summary (also PDF file) of said recommendations. (The Port Authority also issued a press release with links to the same PDF files.)

It’s enough to make one bang their head on a desk repeatedly, so on today’s INSIDER, let’s explore key takeaways and rant about New York State’s obsession with endless asthma- *cough* *cough* -er, highway expansion.

No “Backwards AirTrain” – but No Train of Any Kind

Let’s dissect the following quote from the Expert Panel Recommendation (emphasis mine):

We are unanimous in our opinion that a one-seat ride via subway from the west is the optimal way to achieve the best mass transportation connection to LaGuardia Airport. In our professional experience, a one-seat ride has been the most successful in encouraging a shift to public transit from other transportation modes. Through the study process, however, it has become clear that there are serious funding and constructability challenges for alignments that run past the southern end of Runway 04-22. The expert study team has been unable to determine the viability of underground tunneling solutions in this area that are compliant with FAA regulations. Additional field surveys and geotechnical studies would be needed to determine whether building a subway south of the runway is feasible, and at what cost (preliminary estimates indicate approximately 12-13 years to completion at an estimated cost of $5-$7 billion).

So the panel rightly dispenses with the nonsensical backwards AirTrain. They even say that extending the subway is the best option – and then proceed to sandbag said option. 12-13 years? $5-$7 billion? For about 3 miles of subway?

But wait, it gets worse.

The report studied three alternatives – two that split the N and the W (bad idea), and one that extended both the N and the W to LGA (good idea). Two themes stick out like a sore thumb to me. First, the requirement for copious amounts of “back-of-house” space at each new station (from page 90 of the detailed report – emphasis mine):

The proposed…subway stations would be sized to support 600 ft subway train lengths and, following MTA guidelines, provide 35,000 sf (intermediate station) and 70,000 sf (terminus station) of back of-house space for staff accommodation, and plant, maintenance, and operations room requirements. The existing MTA operations, maintenance, and storage yards would continue to be used for vehicle maintenance and storage with this option.

All 3 subway alternatives include so-called “back-of-house” space. Transit advocates may be familiar with this, as “back-of-house” space was identified as a major cost driver in the Second Avenue Subway project. It seems MTA and the Port Authority have learned nothing from that.

Readers will also note that the N/W extension does not include any provision for a new storage yard. Whether any extension would include tail tracks is also unknown, although both the 7 extension and the SAS included long tails.

I’m not gonna pretend that extending the subway isn’t challenging – relocating an old sewer under the LGA runway exclusion zone can’t be dismissed. However, to me, this study has all the elements of the Rockaway Beach reactivation study – inflated timelines and inflated costs, and a “technical” way of saying “we don’t want to do this”. It’s infuriatingly frustrating!

The Transportation Definition of Insanity

Even worse than the apparent lack of cost containment is accommodation of future HIGHWAY WIDENING, as shown in Section of the report (again, emphasis mine):

Identification of any permanent lane reductions or roadway modifications (e.g., on- or offramp relocations) to NYS DOT highways required to accommodate the option’s infrastructure, or any future highway widening the option alignments may potentially restrict NYS DOT from undertaking the work. Partner agency coordination with NYS DOT (and FHWA where applicable) would be required during the detailed design stage to develop solutions that would allow future highway work (by NYS DOT) to bring highway elements up to current standards. The highway modifications for any option selected for further development would be designed to the appropriate standards to minimize or avoid any degradation of current traffic flow, accessibility, or driving sight lines.

Where to even begin?

The Grand Central Parkway in and around LGA is EIGHT TO TEN LANES WIDE in both directions! Despite the fact the HIGHWAY WIDENING DOES NOT IMPROVE TRAFFIC AND OFTEN MAKES THINGS WORSE, transit improvement options are essentially held hostage by the mere prospect of highway widening!

Highway widening is the transportation definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result – surely, one more lane would fix traffic THIS time!

Cue head-desk.

New York – a supposedly “climate-conscious” state – can’t shake its addiction to endless highway expansion. It’s especially comical when you consider how capacious the subway extension to LGA actually is. Per the Port Authority’s own report (page 111), the N/W extension has a people-moving capacity of 21,000 people per direction per hour; even if the actual load factor is just a quarter of this figure – and the Astoria line’s ridership portends much higher usage – that’s still over 250,000 people per day! Put another way, two tracks of subway can move more people per day than 8-10 lanes of highway!

The Expert Panel Misses the Bus

After all the studies and studies of studies, we’re only gonna get…bus improvements. This is something that NY could’ve done yesterday if it were truly serious about short-term transit improvements. (The long-term nature of subway construction is not lost on me.) Even here, the report describes bus improvement impacts in terms of converting travel lanes to bus lanes or precluding future highway widening (Sections and – pages 317-321). Despite being hailed as “cost-efficient”, the bus options have 9 to 10-figure price tags and even worse timelines – 9 to 10 years for full-BRT options, and 4-5 years for the panel-recommended Option BRT1-C. Readers will note that the estimated timelines for the full BRT options don’t differ substantially from the subway extension options.

In short, what the hell are we even doing?

It’s easy to dive into this report and be discouraged – high costs and long timelines for even basic improvements, dismissal of the best option, the looming specter of endless highway expansion, and no attempts to discourage driving – among other things. Lord knows this report left me shaking my head many times.

I’m left wondering what it will take for NY to adopt best practices for transit improvements and break its addiction to endless highway expansion. I’ll continue to explore this in future updates to my NYTIP series, but dammit if the landscape doesn’t look bleak right now.

discuss respectfully!