It was a bad project, but it died a bad death.
Longtime readers will know I was no fan of Andrew Cuomo’s Backwards AirTrain to LaGuardia Airport. The former New York Governor’s pet project promised minimal time savings, at enormous expense, to a small group of people, earning the title of world’s “most expensive transit project per rider,” according to the reform group Reinvent Albany. The latest in a long line of investments designed to help people get in and out of New York City, rather than around town, it siphoned money and attention from more worthy ideas—and wasn’t even the best tool for the job at hand.
So when Gov. Kathy Hochul announced on Monday she would accept a new recommendation to focus on providing better bus service instead, I thought: good riddance.
And yet. Smothered by redundant analysis, cost overruns, and lawsuits, this lousy AirTrain can tell us much in its demise about what is wrong with American cities and their declining capacity to act big.
First, the immediate cause of death was a 474-page report prepared by a team of consultants over the course of the last 17 months, culminating in a unanimous recommendation to shelve the project by an expert panel of three veteran city planners. Important to study this issue, no doubt. But this report comes on the heels of a 2021 Environmental Impact Statement so gigantic it cannot be contained in a single PDF file. And a 138-page report from 2018 prepared by the Port Authority, which runs the airport. And a handful of previous studies besides.
Hochul’s long wait to cancel this boondoggle, in other words, reflects a worrisome compulsion to study every issue 10,000 times when a simple informed decision would suffice. It’s good work for the consultants, but government need not be composed of an endless series of task forces and study groups.
Second: Why was the LaGuardia AirTrain grounded? Not because it ran in the wrong direction, away from Manhattan. It was because the cost had exploded from $450 million, when Cuomo first discussed the idea in 2014, to $2.5 billion this year. Inflation is bad, but not that bad. This exploding price tag is part of a general problem with American mass transit projects, and big-city infrastructure in general.
These costs are already diminishing our ambitions, in a bad way. The California High Speed Rail Project is so behind schedule and over budget that its completion is an open question. Atlanta and Austin are both grappling with sky-high costs that have threatened transit projects voters already approved. As ridership struggles to recover from the pandemic, agencies will need to figure out how to reform their practices—or force their customers to drive for a generation.
Third, right around the time Hochul commissioned another volume for the LaGuardia AirTrain Memorial Library, the project was vulnerable on another front: It was the subject of a lawsuit brought by environmental and neighborhood groups, alleging that the final EIS—the one too big for a single PDF—was deficient, and asking the FAA to prepare another EIS.
Now, it may be true that the original EIS was biased in favor of Cuomo’s preferred project. But ultimately, a twice-elected governor and his team of planners at the Port Authority decided what to do. They made a bad decision. But it wasn’t a bad decision because it was bad for the environment. And it was their decision to make.
Whether the AirTrain would have been held up by this lawsuit is hard to say. But it’s not some weird hypothetical: Constant litigation over public projects has made it hard to build just about anything. That’s not just a transit issue; in fact, it may be primarily a problem for clean-energy projects like wind farms and transmission lines.
Don’t cry for the Backwards AirTrain. But it deserved to die a better, quicker death than this.