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Revealed: Port Authority AirTrain Documents

Documents Made Public in Riverkeeper Lawsuit Show FAA’s Knowledge of a Biased Transit Alternatives Review and Port Authority’s Expanded Plans to Develop Willets Point, Queens

Air Train documents

Documents revealed as a result of litigation show that the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey’s initial transit alternative screening criteria were carefully selected and applied to achieve “only one alternative,” construction of an AirTrain from Mets-Citi Field Subway Station to LaGuardia Airport in Queens, New York. In a March 2019 document, the Federal Aviation Administration criticizes and questions Port Authority’s initial transit alternatives analysis, finding that Port Authority embellished the purported benefit of the AirTrain; cherry-picked its selection criteria; unevenly applied those selection criteria among the alternatives; and excluded viable and desired ferry service from meaningful consideration. (1) 

In FAA’s own words, the Port Authority had screened out alternatives to achieve the result it wanted: construction of the AirTrain. FAA critiqued Port Authority’s decision to compare the relative impacts of transit alternatives among only a select few criteria, asserting that such a framework would cause the analysis to be arbitrary and uneven, leading to only one possible project alternative:

“Using minimization of impacts to screen out alternatives leads to arbitrary and unevenly applied criteria that are not fully informed by the full range of impacts associated with each alternative. It also only allows one alternative to possibly meet the criteria since the goal is minimization of impact.” (2)

Many of the same deficiencies outlined by FAA pervade the federal agency’s analysis, too. For instance, FAA relies on cherry-picked community impact criteria to justify excluding all other alternatives to the AirTrain, including ferry service, extending the N/W transit line, optimizing bus service and existing transit, and many others. 

The documents also show that Port Authority has actively considered constructing “future passenger parking, and a consolidated rental car facility” at the proposed Willets Point terminus of the AirTrain; extending the AirTrain to Terminal A; and building an on-airport hotel. (3, 4, 5) Moreover, despite the fact that the FAA discarded ferry service as a potential transit alternative to the AirTrain, the documents show it believed such service could be “reliable and convenient.” (6) The FAA even offered advice to Port Authority to reconfigure its alternatives analysis to “make it more defensible to propose a project to introduce ferry service in the future.” (7) These additional significant development projects—the passenger car parking, consolidated rental car facility, Terminal A extension, and ferry service—warrant further cumulative impacts analysis under federal environmental laws, but they were ignored in the FAA’s Final Environmental Impact Statement.

There was significant pressure to finish the FAA’s review quickly. The documents are replete with attempts by Port Authority to speed up the environmental review to just one year, “[b]ecause of the accelerated timeline for environmental review proposed by the Office of the Governor of the State of New York.” (8) This tends to support the assertions by transit experts that the proposed AirTrain from Citi Field was never a good option for transit to the airport, and that it is the product of political support rather than rational transit planning

Given these concerns, coupled with the lack of mitigation for eminent domain of parkland and meaningful public engagement for linguistically isolated communities in Northern Queens, Riverkeeper wrote today to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to ask for further scrutiny of the project. 

We believe a $2 billion rail infrastructure project routed over an environmental justice community’s waterfront park warrants real scrutiny, so we urge the FAA to reconsider its flawed analysis before moving the AirTrain forward. Based on the documents made public today, the local community members can rest assured that many of their criticisms regarding the environmental impact statement’s deficiencies are 100% correct. The FAA’s excuses to eliminate all other alternatives that might better serve our region are simply not credible.

(1) Pages 297-310.
(2) Page 302.
(3) Page 911; see also pages 298, 299, 911, 1152, and 1197.
(4) Pages 302, 306, 308, 309, 1063, 1152, and 1210.
(5) Pages 298, 299, 349.
(6) Page 303.
(7) Id.; see also page 299.
(8) Page 911; see also pages 901, 942, 947, 985, 987, 1153, 1162, and 1198.

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