Of all the grand visions that have been entered on a wish list of major urban improvements — a West Side football stadium! a bike bridge to Hoboken! floodgates at the Rockaways! — none has seemed more out of reach than an airport that actually works. When Joe Biden said La Guardia was worthy of “a third-world country,” we nodded. When, a year later, Governor Cuomo announced plans last week to scrap it and start from scratch, we responded with a skeptical shrug. Do we think we deserve nothing better? Had the governor touched on New Yorkers’ sole area of low self-esteem?
It turns out that there are major cities around the world where getting in and getting out do not require hours of boredom, anxiety, and sweat. Travelers arriving at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport can wheel their luggage onto the RER commuter line at the terminal and exit 40 minutes later one block from Notre-Dâme. Here, we accept transit-oriented suffering with an ineffectual grunt: the march down flickering hallways and broken escalators at JFK, the tire-flattening slog along the Van Wyck Expressway (which should rightly be called a Stillway), the unwanted intimacy and stroke-inducing miasma on subway platforms. Americans give a superior smile at the idea of Cubans holding their 1950s Chevys together with duct tape and chicken wire, but the underpinnings of the Northeast were built longer ago than any of us remembers, and many of those systems are overwhelmed or worn-out.
Governor Cuomo’s plan to rebuild La Guardia airport is a Band-Aid on our wheezing regional infrastructure, but it’s one hell of a Band-Aid. A new airport, if it performs as the instruction manual promises, could alleviate congestion for thousands of miles around, since a rash of delayed flights in Queens sends knots of misery rippling all over the nation. Conceivably, it could even make arriving in or departing from New York less of an ordeal. Transit advocates who see it as a sop to tourists at straphangers’ expense behave as if we never leave the five boroughs, or as if the 56 million people who visit each year come only to gaze at the Empire State Building, not to do business, buy meals, attend concerts, take courses, or visit grandchildren.
Cuomo’s principal reason to remake this airport is not just urgent need, but the fact that he can actually get it done — though surely not as easily as he claims. He estimates that a completely new La Guardia will take $4 billion of public money (roughly the cost of the World Trade Center Transportation Hub) and five years to build, which as anybody who has ever renovated a bathroom knows, will easily translate into double the money and double the time. Cuomo seems bent on muscling through big-ticket items the way he hustles everybody else, but there’s a price to pay for haste. His ill-conceived notion of plunking down a convention center at the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens mercifully fell apart. He managed to unstick the plan to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge only by scrapping the idea of running trains across it, essentially guaranteeing the next generation of sprawl. With the new La Guardia, too, Cuomo has punted on the toughest task: easing the pain of getting there. He’s ordered up a ferry stop in the landmarked Marine Air Terminal, for the tiny fraction of travelers who will come to or from the airport by boat, and an AirTrain link to Willets Point — which is great for anyone flying in from Cleveland for a Mets game and just short of useless for everyone else.
Cuomo has also shown little interest in ideas he can’t handle more or less alone. He might conceivably have used the same rhetoric about the Port Authority as he did for La Guardia: “There is no way to fix this. We need to literally tear it down and rebuild it.” But overhauling a two-state bureaucracy would require a power struggle that he has no guarantee of winning. Meanwhile, he stands shoulder to shoulder with Governor Christie in pushing the proposed Hudson rail-tunnel project back to the federal government, where it can die decorously of neglect. He wants to bring Metro-North into Penn Station (even as Amtrak will eventually be moving across the street) but he’s shown little interest in uprooting Madison Square Garden, demolishing the whole miserable rat maze below, and replacing it with a safer, saner station. As for the prospect of genuine high-speed rail, New Yorkers can only look at Japan’s bullet trains and sigh.
A new La Guardia will leave most — nearly all — of the region’s transit problems unsolved. But the task of modernizing the city’s antique machinery is a multigenerational job, and somebody has to start somewhere. This project, if it’s successful, might just prod Cuomo’s timid counterparts and successors into building big again.