The meeting was filled with representatives from elected officials, community boards and local organizations. Notably, members of the Ditmars Boulevard Block Association, which has criticized the LaGuardia redevelopment and AirTrain proposal, showed up in large numbers.
Matt DiScenna, senior program manager with the Port Authority, presented the benefits of the AirTrain project, especially the importance of getting cars off the road. The authority projects that the rail line would remove 28,000 cars off the highways weekly.
In 2014, only 8 percent of travelers to LaGuardia took mass transit. DiScenna said the AirTrain has the opportunity to more than double that percentage. The Port Authority estimates it will have between 6.6 and 10 million riders per year.
Environmentally, taking vehicles off the raods would result in a reduction of 6,250 metric tons of CO2 emissions and greenhouse gases per year. According to DiScenna, that effect is equivalent to planting 7,300 acres of forest.
The project would create 3,00 union construction jobs, and some permanent jobs to operate the AirTrain. DiScenna noted that the project won’t require taxpayer dollars because it’s entirely funded by the Port Authority.
But most importantly, the Port Authority believes the AirTrain would create a more efficient connection for travelers in Midtown to the airport. DiScenna said taking the Long Island Rail Road from Midtown to Willets Point is just 15 minutes, followed by five or six minutes on the rail.
“We think the railroad is going to be a very attractive way for folks to get to the airport,” he said.
The AirTrain would be a two-track system, and would run every four minutes. The Port Authority estimates there will be 18,000 riders per day.
Trains will have a capacity of about 80 to 100 passengers per car. Each train will have two cars.
A panel of representatives on the roundtable questioned how the Port Authority plans to respond to concerns about pile driving, damage, dust and noise.
DiScenna responded that the project is beginning an environmental review process that’s being led by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). That process will look at environmental impacts and determine the appropriate required mitigation.
“Certainly, the Port Authority is willing to go beyond the requirements when there are particular concerns that need to be addressed,” he said. “We know that pile-driving has been an issue with the existing redevelopment project.”
While the terminal redevelopment required constructing new buildings, resulting in a lot of structural support, the AirTrain won’t require as many piles, he said.
“We’ll do everything that we can to both reduce noise and vibration, and also monitor the effects from that,” DiScenna said. “We’ll certainly have a big presence out in the community for folks who have concerns.”
Another Port Authority official added that they’re looking to open a community outreach office in East Elmhurst where residents can walk in and give concerns.
Another member of the roundtable asked what impact the project will have on the waterfront. DiScenna said there will be no AirTrain construction in the water.
As for the height of the rail, it will vary depending on the location. DiScenna said it will be similar to that of the JFK Airport train.
“It will be a little higher when we come off the airport, and we’ll come down to about 25 feet when we’re along the promenade area,” he said. “Then it’ll go back up because we have to cross over an interchange area.”
Frank Taylor, president of the Ditmars Boulevard Block Association, expressed concerns that the piles for the AirTrain, while fewer, will be closer to homes in East Elmhurst.
He also blasted the mitigation process for homeowners that have already been affected.
“You haven’t done that for our houses for the development of Delta and the airport,” Taylor said. “The process has not been independent or transparent.”
Port Authority project executive Richard Smyth said the agency wants to conduct pre-construction surveys for every house, and own up to any damage that the AirTrain project creates.
“But that was done before and failed,” Taylor responded.
For the terminal redevelopment, Port Authority conducted pre-construction surveys at 16 homes. Since then, it has also offered surveys to anyone who requests one.
As for the damage claims, Smyth said the agency received 21 requests in total. The Port Authority has delivered five checks, and determined in three cases the damage wasn’t caused by the aiport project.
All of the other cases are in various stages of review.
“The offer is still out there. If anybody does have a concern, we will meet,” Smyth said. “We’ll do the same with the AirTrain.”
Taylor also questioned why the route would have commuters go all the way to Willets Point, then double back around to the airport.
“The actual geography is not what matters when people are making their travel decisions,” DiScenna said. “It’s about travel time.”
He noted that 50 percent of LaGuardia Airport travelers make the trip to or from Manhattan. Twenty-five percent of passengers are coming from Midtown.
Those who travel by car are going through a “highly congested corridor” that is “getting worse every year,” DiScenna added.
Rebecca Pryor, a program coordinator with the clean water advocacy group Riverkeeper and a leader of the Guardians of Flushing Bay, said her main concern was about the process, which “started with eminent domain” taking parkland.
“We need to make sure this is a full environmental review that takes all alternative routes equally,” Pryor said.
James Carriero, the legal counsel for the Ditmars Boulevard group, said he believed the AirTrain wouldn’t even accomplish its stated objectives. He said travelers would not care about taking a few extra minutes on their trip as long as it’s comfortable.
He also said his block association has never been provided with any studies to support that the AirTrain was the best mass transit option available.
Smyth said all of these questions should be included in the environmental review process.
“Your questions should be posed verbally or in writing to the FAA,” he said.