By 2025, travelers who use La Guardia Airport may no longer have to fight New York City’s notorious traffic to get there.
A plan to build a $2.1 billion AirTrain to La Guardia cleared its biggest remaining hurdle with approval from the Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday.
Preliminary work to construct the elevated rail link could begin before the end of summer, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the airport.
The decision is a notable victory for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has championed the project as an integral piece of his plan to transform La Guardia from an object of constant derision to a “world-class” travel hub. The airport is in the midst of a complete overhaul, including the replacement of the main terminals and gates.
The federal approval came over the objections of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat who represents parts of Queens, and the environmental group Riverkeeper, both of whom raised questions about why the AirTrain was the only plan for getting people to and from the airport to survive the project’s review.
Critics have also targeted the AirTrain’s indirect route. To get to Manhattan, which is west of La Guardia, travelers would have to go the opposite way first — riding east to connect to the subway or a commuter train at a station next to CitiField, the baseball stadium where the Mets play.
Port Authority officials have defended the route as the least disruptive to the neighborhoods that surround the airport in northern Queens. It would run along the north side of the Grand Central Parkway from Willets Point to two stations at the airport.
Mr. Cuomo and Rick Cotton, executive director of the Port Authority, have billed the AirTrain as a 30-minute trip from Midtown Manhattan to La Guardia. But that estimate is measured from the time of boarding a subway train along the 7 line or an L.I.R.R. train at Pennsylvania Station, both of which serve Willets Point.
When Mr. Cuomo first proposed the project six years ago, he estimated that it would cost just $450 million, but the price tag has nearly quintupled since then. The agency hopes to use fees collected from passengers at the airports it runs to help it pay for the AirTrain, but the F.A.A. has not yet approved that idea.
La Guardia Airport “deserves a reliable, efficient, and affordable transit connector worthy of its destination,” Mr. Cuomo said in a prepared statement. “With the Federal Aviation Administration’s approval today of the La Guardia AirTrain, that’s exactly what New Yorkers will get.”
The approval flies in the face of criticism from neighborhood activists and elected officials. In a May 26 letter, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez asked the F.A.A. to refrain from approving the project in light of information unearthed by Riverkeeper. She argued that the documents showed that not all alternatives, including a subway link or ferry boats, had been thoroughly investigated.
“This project would be built in the heart of one of the most heavily impacted communities by COVID-19, with many community members opposing the development,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez wrote. “It is critical that this project be held to the highest ethical and efficacy standards — and it is clear that has not been the case to date.”
In a response to Riverkeeper on Tuesday, Steve Dickson, administrator of the F.A.A., said alternatives that could have had more benefits were ruled out because the main purpose of the project was to improve access to the airport. “It is not a regional transit project,” he wrote.
Neither Riverkeeper nor Ms. Ocasio-Cortez responded to requests for comment. Senator Jessica Ramos, a Democrat who represents neighborhoods near La Guardia, called the decision a “slap in the face’’ to residents who will be affected by the project.
The plunge in air travel caused by the pandemic has damaged the finances of the Port Authority, which also operates Kennedy International and Newark Liberty International airports. The agency has pleaded for a $3 billion federal bailout but so far has received only a portion of relief funds the government gave to all airports.
Mr. Cotton has said that without more federal aid, the Port Authority will have to reconsider its plans to improve transportation infrastructure in the New York region, including new terminals at Kennedy International. But he has said the two exceptions would be the ongoing construction at La Guardia and at Newark Liberty, where a terminal is being built and the existing AirTrain is set to be replaced.
The Port Authority has issued a request for proposals to design, build and maintain the La Guardia AirTrain and expects to choose a winning bidder by mid-2022. The project is scheduled for completion in 2025.
Mr. Cotton said the project would “help drive the region’s economic recovery” by creating 3,000 union construction jobs and more than $500 million in contract opportunities for businesses owned by women and minorities and businesses based in Queens.
The Queens Chamber of Commerce applauded the decision, saying the project would be a boon to the community and the entire region. “This investment in La Guardia Airport will catalyze economic activity that supports local businesses and local communities and comes at a time when many small businesses in Queens are struggling to survive after a difficult year,” the chamber said in a statement.