Last Wednesday night at the New York LaGuardia Airport Marriott Hotel, hundreds of residents, workers and advocates showed up to learn more about the project.
They read informational displays, spoke to FAA experts, and submitted their private comments about the AirTrain proposal.
Several East Elmhurst residents, including members of the Ditmars Boulevard Block Association, expressed frustration about the format of the meeting.
Leaders of the neighborhood group believed the scoping meetings were going to be in a public forum format. Instead, the meetings were open house-style.
“This workshop is ridiculous,” said Frank Taylor, president of DBBA. “This is a set-up right now.”
He fumed that the room where the public scoping was held was too small and cramped. He was also upset by the presence of many attendees who “are not even from the area.”
“What about the residents, the people who actually live here, who pay mortgages and pay taxes?” he said.
Taylor said a forum would have afforded attendees the chance to hear from everyone who spoke. He added that the block association has already held its own workshops.
“Hopefully someone comes and fixes this,” he said. “It’s 2019, these things should not go on.”
The outspoken opponent of the project cast blame directly at Governor Andrew Cuomo for allowing residents to “feel the pain” of the project. In contrast, he said, the governor abandoned a project to create a tunnel from Westchester to Long Island.
“Is that a governor of all people, or a governor of some people,” Taylor said.
Marie Gayle, also a member of the Ditmars Boulevard Block Association, accused the FAA of trying to “control” what people hear about the project.
“I think they don’t want the community at large to hear the full story,” she said. “This is what you call divide and conquer, control the masses.”
Gayle added that the group’s legal counsel wrote and asked the FAA to change the format, which the government agency declined to do.
“As a community we’re very disappointed that, yet again, our voices won’t be heard,” she said.
Andrew Brooks, the FAA’s regional environmental program manager for airports in the Eastern Region, said he heard those concerns from residents. He responded that there is “no opportunity” at a forum that is not also afforded at an open house.
He noted that there are two stenographers to take comments for the record, whereas at a public hearing, there would only be one.
“We will not prevent or preclude anyone from getting comments on the record,” Brooks said. “If they want it on the record, we will ensure they will get on the record.”
As for the suggestion to have a public forum, Brooks said they would “certainly take that feedback into consideration for future opportunities.” But the plan for the fall, when FAA will have another input meeting, is to have it “similar to this.”
The scoping meetings, part of the environmental impact process, will help shape what the analysis will examine. In addition to possible alternatives, the EIS will study air quality, noise and visual impacts, among a dozen more categories.
“All of that is to be done in the future,” he said. “Right now, we’re trying to figure out essentially what we need to look at.”
Public comments began on May 3 and will close on June 17 at 5 p.m.
Once the scoping is finished, the EIS process will begin. According to Brooks, the Draft EIS is scheduled to be completed by August 2020.
After the draft is released, there will be another public comment period. The FAA will work to address those comments and concerns, then develop a Final EIS document.
That will be released in the final quarter of 2021, immediately followed by the “Record of Decision” 30 days after. Brooks expects the decision to be released by April 2021.
At last Wednesday’s scoping meeting, there was no consensus in the room about the project. Many, including East Elmhurst resident James Mongeluzo, opposed the AirTrain.
Mongeluzo, who is a member of the Sensible Way to LGA coalition, said he believes an extension of the N/W lines to LaGuardia Airport would make more sense.
He argued that the 7 train and the Port Washington line of the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR), which are necessary to connect to Willets Point for the transfer to the AirTrain, are both already overburdened and can’t handle an increased passenger load.
Having the N and W go to the airport, meanwhile, would be a true “one-seat ride” from Midtown and would connect with popular areas including Long Island City, Times Square and Union Square, he said.
“I think it’s a better option because I think it has the potential to really convince people to take transit to the airport,” Mongeluzo said.
Other opponents of the project, including Taylor and Gayle, have spoken out about the construction impacts in East Elmhurst, as well as the merits of alternatives like improved bus access or ferry service.
Another coalition, which calls itself A Better Way to LGA, made up of business leaders, union honchos and even the New York Mets, argues that the AirTrain is needed for the future.
Seth Bornstein, executive director of the Queens Economic Development Corporation (QEDC), a member of the coalition, said more mass transit is crucial for a big city like New York.
“We need to get people to and from that airport in a better way than they have now,” he said.
The co-chairs of A Better Way to LGA, Angela Pinsky from Association for a Better New York, Carlo Scissura from the New York Building Congress and Tom Grech from the Queens Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement that the project is key to a more connected and less congested city.
“AirTrain LGA represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring LaGuardia Airport –– the only major East Coast airport without a rail connection –– into the 21st century,” they said.