Big Smoke

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Train to the Plane

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With the current proposals to extend the PATH train to Newark Airport, pundits are questioning not only why a subway should duplicate what commuter rail already does – Newark Liberty International is arguably the most easily-accessed major airport in the New York metropolitan area, being that its AirTrain is only a few minutes away from midtown Manhattan via New Jersey Transit – but also why two miles of surface rail would carry a price tag of $1.5 billion dollars and a construction timeline of ten years. This is the Port Authority, however, which is likely the only institution in the area that actually has a nest egg (largely because they control all the Hudson crossings and can charge $85 per tractor-trailer), so the project certainly couldn’t hurt.

That said, there’s a major airport without any train service at all, despite being equally close to an existing subway line: LaGuardia Airport. This isn’t, of course, for lack of trying. Ever since the airport was a twinkle in a planner’s eye (and carried the name Curtiss Airport) the idea was for it to connect to a subway line. Benjamin Kabak of Second Avenue Sagas chronicles the last attempt by the city – in the Giuliani administration, and shelved during Bloomberg’s first term – to figure out how to bridge that gap. The problem? Two blocks of NIMBYs beyond the last stop of the N train on 31st Street.

The city’s tried multiple routes:

  • Extending the N train two blocks down 31st Street until it can reach city-owned property, then going down 19th Avenue until it hits the airport.
  • Extending the N train one block up 31st Street and continuing down Ditmars Boulevard and through a residential neighborhood until it can reach the airport.
  • Burying the N train through a two block ramp up 31st Street.
  • Creating a spur that uses the Sunnyside train yards and cuts across a cemetary to reach the airport.
  • Creating a spur that rides over the Grand Central Parkway just like the JFK AirTrain does with the Van Wyck Expressway.
  • Looping the 7 train back across Willets Point to reach the airport from the other side.

(JFK’s AirTrain flying over Robert Moses’ purposeful omission of a rail Right-of-Way)

Each of these was denied by NIMBYs because the N train is an elevated line and each plan required some modicum of construction on streets that didn’t already have elevated lines. Local businessmen and residents argued that elevated lines are unsightly and loud, and didn’t want another inch of them if possible. Queens councilmen saw the blood in the water and rallied to kill the proposals, which had funds earmarked for them, because that makes for good politics if bad planning. As it was in the 70s, so it was in the 90s, and here it remains today: A mere two and a half miles, short as the crow flies yet interminably distant as the express bus drives.

We should keep trying.

A blogger named dZine suggested doubling back from the N train’s last stop on Ditmars Boulevard and hooking right onto the Grand Central Parkway directly (because you can’t make a highway look or sound any worse), thereby presenting a fairly direct route to the airport without going through a single new block of residential neighborhoods. He remarked that the San Francisco BART system does that to reach their airport.

It’s almost clean – while it would bypass the NIMBYs north of the terminal, it does cut directly on top of the Neptune Diner (although maybe that’s not such a bad thing) – but it’s a bit awkward. I’d argue a small tweak in that, should the Astoria Boulevard station be moved up half a block, a spur can be created right before it, over Columbus Triangle, that then straddles the parkway. There’s nobody up in the next half-block except Hoyt Playground and a Staples box store, and everybody there’s already under an El anyway. The N train would then still terminate at Ditmars Boulevard, but then the W train could be resurrected as an airport/midtown shuttle, without sacrificing a single residential street to the rumble of the subway.

It’s not going to happen until the city prioritizes it, of course, but a steady drumbeat of gadflies, considering this New Jersey proposal, could certainly serve to keep it in the public eye.

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One Response to “Train to the Plane”


  1. Cuomo’s Political Ambitions « Big Smoke
    on Jan 23rd, 2015
    @ 1:23 pm

    […] Central Parkway, thus avoiding any NIMBY issues while retaining the one-seat ride from Midtown, or a slight modification to simply create a spur at the Astoria Blvd station to do the same, utilizing the Astoria line’s heretofore unused express track for added […]

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