Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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Facts, Fantasy, Fiction and Politics at LaGuardia
July 30, 2015 --More than a dozen years after his tenure as mayor of New York ended in 1973, John V. Lindsay slid an illustration across his desk and insisted it was the future of the city's crumbling, overcrowded airports. "This will bring Kennedy into the 21st century," Lindsay, by then a lawyer and lobbyist, told me in 1986. "And this will happen. New York needs and deserves this." The plan, a display of colorful squiggles representing new road and rail links emanating from a purpose-built centralized check-in facility, was going to cost $1 billion and be ready in as few as five years. Never happened. Despite being supported by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the agency that operates all three New York-area airports, it was never even officially announced. The drawings and the plans — even Lindsay himself — were quietly tucked away and eventually forgotten. I remembered this ancient history on Monday as I watched New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveil a plan said to cost $4 billion and counting to save LaGuardia Airport, famously derided last year by Vice President Joe Biden as a third-world facility. Biden was on hand to affix his imprimatur to Cuomo's LGA revival, which calls for one huge new central terminal, rail and ferry links, a hotel and a cornucopia of retail options. And it's all going to be done in a New York minute — 57 months from next year's groundbreaking to be exact. "I wish everything I said that was truthful but controversial would turn out this well," Biden said with a self-satisfied grin. "This is what New York deserves," Cuomo said in his smug, slightly screechy citified accent. See where I'm going? I'm glad you do because I'm not sure I do. History, logic and even the most superficial reading of New York tea leaves suggest there's no reason to think Cuomo's plan — which, for all the press releases and renderings is hardly a detailed blueprint — can happen. There's surely no reason to think it could happen in Cuomo's time frame. And it may go the way of the mid-1980s plan to restore Kennedy Airport. On the other hand, Biden's much-repeated third-world quip deeply embarrassed Cuomo and his Port Authority crony, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. It surely ended any thoughts Cuomo may have had to make a run at the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. Republican Christie has little reason to support a New York project, but his albatross, Bridgegate, was a Port Authority production and he won't make waves as his GOP presidential campaign flounders. And there is the crude, nonpartisan reality we business flyers face every time we use the airport, the 20th busiest in the nation. First opened 76 years ago with its now-reviled main terminal dating back to 1964, LaGuardia is a cesspool of congestion and discomfort crippling New York's financial boom. That decrepit terminal — you know it by letter B — may be the worst major airport passenger facility in the country. It is a national business-travel chokepoint because its 25 million passengers endure the worst on-time performance of any major U.S. airport. It is, in fact, exactly what Cuomo called it Monday: "un-New York ... slow, dated ... almost universally decried."
One tiny problemLaGuardia's existential problem is its size or, more accurately, its lack of it. At just 680 acres, it is dwarfed by airports such as Dallas/Fort Worth (18,000 acres) and Denver International (34,000 acres). Worse, there's no room to expand since the airport, the site of a former amusement park, is hemmed in on all sides by water and a busy highway. And there are only two runways. Cuomo's plan couldn't address the former and skirts the latter because leaving the runways unchanged means far fewer approvals and government-mandated studies were needed.
One singular sensationWhat Cuomo's plan does is move the airport's footprint 600 feet south so passenger facilities back up against the Grand Central Parkway, the southern boundary. This allows for the construction of a centralized passenger terminal, which Cuomo claims would be the first new U.S. airport of the 21st Century. But that's political doublespeak. The airport's original passenger area, the Marine Air Terminal, will continue to operate. (It's a national landmark and home to glorious Depression-era public art.) And despite their glossy depiction on the renderings, two of LGA's other three terminals, designated C and D, are not in Cuomo's or the Port Authority's control. They are leased to Delta Air Lines, which in the past four years has poured nearly $250 million into remaking the terminals. Reality suggests Delta won't demolish the buildings, simply connect them with some architectural sleight-of-hand so the political fantasy of a single passenger terminal is served.
Planes, Trains and AutomobilesWhile the Cuomo plan leaves runways untouched, the 600-foot terminal shift creates more room for aircraft movements and taxiways. That has the potential to eliminate some of the infuriating "gate holds" afflicting the current LGA. It also virtually guarantees longer walks from the check-in and security areas to gates. To create space, the plan apparently envisions the demolition of the airport's existing parking garages. It calls for a "seamless integration" of parking structures into the one-terminal design, but makes no provision for them. What is highlighted is an AirTrain to link the passenger terminal to a nearby complex of train stations that serves both New York City's subway system and the Long Island Rail Road commuter line. If you've ever used the AirTrain at Kennedy airport to travel from a passenger terminal to the nearest subway station, you know how fraught and slapdash the process is. The plan also calls for a high-speed ferry to connect New York with the Marine Air Terminal. Airport ferry service has failed repeatedly at LGA in the past.
Dollars and senseThe announced $4 billion price tag, split between public and private funds, only covers the cost of new terminal construction, the so-called "western" part of the airport plan. Delta has supposedly committed to paying for and managing the renovations for the two terminals it controls. The chance of the $4 billion part of the project coming in on budget? Zero. New York construction projects don't work that way. One recent example: One World Trade Center was priced at $3 billion when it was pitched in 2007 as a replacement for one of the towers destroyed in the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. The final price tag for the building when it opened last year? $3.9 billion — and even that number is considered conservative.
Flights of fancyMy guess is that several parts of the Cuomo plan will never get off the drawing board. The 200-room hotel, for instance. The intra-terminal tram? Costly and probably unnecessary. And if the project actually breaks ground, watch to see if the AirTrain link disappears. New York in general and the Port Authority in specific frequently sacrifice intermodal connectivity in the name of economic prudence.
About the timelineCuomo insisted that all relevant approvals have already been secured so construction can begin next year. He also said the public-private consortium would construct the "western" part of the project simultaneously with Delta's work on its two terminals. He claimed facilities would open within 39 months and final work would be completed 18 months after that. In other words, a brand newish LaGuardia would be ready by 2021. It's foolish to believe such rhetoric. After all, nearly 30 years after Lindsay pushed that drawing of a revived Kennedy Airport in my direction, terminals are still being remade, demolished or renovated.
A quid pro quoCapital projects in New York are notorious for secret arrangements. Unfortunately, we rarely learn about them until years later. I expect the same from the LGA plan. But one prediction I'll make: watch for the Port Authority to lift the "perimeter rule" that restricts most flights to cities within 1,500 miles of LGA. Delta Air Lines wants to serve West Coast destinations from LaGuardia. Don't think discarding the perimeter rule wasn't part of the airline's price for going along with Cuomo's plans.
Be careful what you wish forAssuming anything like the Cuomo plan actually makes it to the real world, the Port Authority says the airport will remain open during its remake. And you thought flying to and from LaGuardia was awful and annoying now ...
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