A final verdict on LaGuardia Airport’s fate has been eagerly anticipated for years.
Plagued by repeated delays, crumbling infrastructure, hostile and obstructive lounges and no reliable transport connections, it has been described as both “un-New York” and akin to “some third-world country” as well as being listed as “America’s worst airport” in 2012. A
n accurate description, hinting to its post-war glory days after its completion in 1939, summed LaGuardia up as “a 20th century airport overwhelmed by 21st century demands”.
Such is the state of the domestic airport that its existing infrastructure was deemed unsalvageable – instead, New York governor, Andrew Cuomo, recently announced a $4bn reconstruction plan that will see LaGuardia’s current, fragmented terminal layout torn down and replaced with a single, architecturally unified terminal.
The expansion, which includes a new rail link and a ferry terminal, is hoped to double the space available for aircraft to operate, reduce delays and carbon emission from idling airplanes, and most importantly, become a modern, welcoming hub for a forecasted 35 million passengers by 2030.
But how will a 76-year-old airport manage to rise from the ashes and start from scratch as early as 2019?
Bringing LaGuardia into the 21st Century
LaGuardia’s rehabilitation has been on the drawing board since 2012, when small sections of its existing structure started being rebuilt under the authorisation of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ), a joint venture overseeing any new-build transportation infrastructure in the region. The grand refurbishment was first announced by Cuomo in his January 2014 state address, when the governor vouched to revitalise local transport networks as one of his main goals in office.
“Our airport modernisation plan not only enhances how our individual airports look and act in the 21st century, but addresses how they must fundamentally work together to strategically grow New York’s economy,” Cuomo said at the time.
At the start of 2015, AECOM Technology Corporation vice chairman Dan Tishman was appointed chair of an Airport Advisory Panel, tasked with delivering the final plan for LaGuardia’s reconstruction.
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The panel laid out its vision in a report published on 27 July, which detailed the critical transformations necessary to ensure LaGuardia’s future success.
“For far too long, LaGuardia has been subjected to underinvestment and sporadic and piecemeal development with no overarching vision or plan on what the airport should be,” the report concluded.
Cuomo’s vote of approval came two days later, officialising the grand two-stage plan involving the demolition and reconstruction of the airport’s main Terminal B on its western wing, followed by a parallel revamp of its eastern side.
The first half of the plan’s delivery, also called the CTB Replacement Project, comes with a $4bn price tag and is currently pending PANYNJ’s approval, expected to be granted in early 2016, for construction to kick-start soon after.
The first stage of LaGuardia’s transformation
The redevelopment program will include the demolition of the existing Central Terminal B (CTB) standing at the heart of LaGuardia’s currently inefficient operations. This will be replaced by a new, 35-gate terminal building, complete with a new aeronautical ramp, frontage roads, a new central heating and refrigeration plant, as well as additional connections and site improvements. The “majority of the first half” is primed to open in 2019, with full completion scheduled for 2021.
The new terminal will be built closer to Grand Central Parkway in an attempt to “utilise LaGuardia’s geographic footprint more efficiently”, according to a government press release, a move which will free up nearly two miles of extra taxiway space for aircraft. The increased size is hoped to drastically reduce the disabling bottlenecks and delays LaGuardia is currently experiencing, as well as lower the amount of carbon emissions produced by idling aircraft.
The scheme will be funded under “one of the most ambitious P3s [public-private partnerships] ever undertaken in the New York/New Jersey region”, according to the Port Authority Capital Plan Summary for 2014-2023. The public-private partnership (PPP), to be negotiated by PANYNJ, will design, build, partially finance, operate and maintain the new terminal and related facilities until 2050, the capital plan further explains. Private funding is expected to cover $2.5bn of the cost, while PANYNJ will contribute a further $1.1bn towards additional infrastructure improvements, the construction of a new East Parking Garage, a new 24MW electrical substation and runway safety enhancements.
PANYNJ’s share in the redevelopment project stands under the LGA Capital Infrastructure Program, as described in the authority’s financial records, where it is listed as a “new major initiative”. According to forecasts, ten new gates are expected to open in late 2016, followed by the completely operational 35-gate CTB in late 2021.
The second half of the project, to be delivered in parallel with CTB’s reconstruction, will see Delta Air Lines redevelop its own terminals located in LaGuardia’s eastern wing.
Rail and port connectivity
Perhaps the most disputed revelation regarding LaGuardia’s transformation was the Airport Advisory Panel’s proposal to build a 1.5 mile AirTrain, which would expand much-needed public transport access to the airport.
As it stands, LaGuardia is the only major airport in the New York City region that is not accessible by rail, an “inexcusable” reality, as Cuomo pointed out.
The governor announced the highly-demanded rail link in January, saying that “for years travellers, businesses, and airport employees have called for improved accessibility to LaGuardia.” At an estimated price of $450m, the AirTrain will directly connect to the subway system and the Long Island Rail Road at Mets-Willets Point Station.
“Passengers arriving via a future AirTrain can disembark directly into the new central hall with its views of the airfield, affording passengers an appealing entry into the airport,” the panel’s report reads.
Transport problems unsolved?
The case for it is seemingly clear: since an AirTrain first opened at JFK Airport in 2003, ridership has increased by 247%. But it’s the report’s recommendations on the railway’s layout that ultimately drew criticism of the project’s delivery. Placed in a densely populated area, the Panel advises further evaluation of the “best method and route” of the rail connection, with a view to minimising local community impact. But critics have highlighted that such concerns would deliver a project that will increase travel times for most people.
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In an August op-ed for New York Magazine, architecture critic Justin Davidson argued that “a new La Guardia will leave most — nearly all — of the region’s transit problems unsolved”, but concedes that “the task of modernising the city’s antique machinery is a multigenerational job, and somebody has to start somewhere. “
An additional connection aims to revive a “water taxi service” from 1987, by installing a ferry terminal adjacent to the airport’s Marine Air Terminal. The panel recommended that a strategy for a ferry service was explored, with the possibility of extending the operation to the east terminal.
The project received further criticism from Captain Chesley Sullenberger, also known as the “Miracle on the Hudson” pilot for his famed 2009 emergency landing of a US Airways flight on the Hudson River. Sullenberger argued that the $4bn project fails to address the risks posed by the 7,000ft runways, some of the shortest in the nation, which leave little room for error for landing pilots.
There is no denying that the much-needed upgrade of LaGuardia is eagerly awaited across the nation. In its current state, the airport contributes approximately $16.3bn in economic activity to the region, and its rehabilitation is expected to drastically increase that figure, as well as create 8,000 direct and 10,000 indirect jobs during the construction process.
At present, PANYNJ predicts the completion of the East End Substation and runway safety area enhancements by the end of this year.