Nearly seven years ago, the MTA pledged that the Mets-Willets Point station on the Long Island Rail Road would be “fully accessible for the first time in 2016.”
Plans called for an elevator that would move commuters between the train platform and the passageway above the station that connects with Citi Field, the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.
But with the 2021 Mets season in full swing and tennis returning this summer after the pandemic pause, the rail stop remains off-limits to riders with disabilities. The reason: Long-promised accessibility upgrades are tied to efforts by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s much-criticized push to build a LaGuardia AirTrain terminal at Willets Point.
“There are so many big cultural landmarks there, you name it, it’s there — Citi Field, the Queens Museum, the tennis center,” said Sasha Blair-Goldensohn, a wheelchair user who, prior to the pandemic, played at the tennis center. “For that station to be inaccessible is inexplicable.”
Seventeen of the LIRR’s 124 stations are not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to the MTA. The transit agency plans to make seven more stations on the railroad accessible — including Mets-Willets Point — through its $51 billion 2020-2024 capital program.
Lack of accessibility remains a bigger obstacle in the subway and on the Staten Island Railway, where 27% of the total 493 stations are currently not fully accessible.
The Mets-Willets Point station renovation is linked to Cuomo’s bid to have the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey build a $2 billion elevated AirTrain route between LaGuardia Airport and Willets Point, a plan introduced in 2015.
“The response is always that it’s going to be part of the whole AirTrain project,” said Gerard Bringmann, chairman of the Long Island Rail Road Commuter Council. “That’s their story and they’re sticking to it.”
It’s not the only MTA project slowed by the AirTrain proposal at Willets Point: A $19.5 million plan to make an interim bus parking lot at the neighboring Casey Stengel depot has been delayed, records show, “due to coordination with Port Authority AirTrain project.”
AirTrain Decision Coming
The Federal Aviation Administration wrote in a Final Environmental Impact Statement last month that the proposed two-mile route for the rail link was the preferred choice among the 46 alternatives ruled out by the agency.
Those included extending subway lines, creating dedicated bus lanes on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the Grand Central Parkway and adding ferry service to the airport.
The FAA expects any day to issue a decision that could clear the way for preliminary AirTrain construction at LaGuardia to start by June, with the project expected to be completed by December 2025.
The project has been criticized because travelers would have to take the No. 7 or the LIRR to Mets-Willets Point before paying a second fare and hopping on the AirTrain to LaGuardia.
A Port Authority spokesperson said the AirTrain station connecting with LIRR service at the Mets-Willets Point stop would be fully in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and “employ the latest and most sophisticated technology to move passengers from the commuter rail platform up through the new station to the AirTrain platform.”
Plans call for a second platform to be added to the LIRR station, with an overhead connection to the LaGuardia Airtrain and a new passageway to the No. 7 line stop outside of Citi Field.
The overhaul would also make the station — now open mostly for events at Citi Field and the tennis center — a full-time stop with four trains per hour going into Penn Station and the new LIRR terminal beneath Grand Central Terminal that’s supposed to open late next year.
The MTA, which is responsible for LIRR operations at the Mets-Willets Point station, declined to provide a comment for this story.
The only way LIRR riders with mobility impairments can now reach the Queens complex is by taking a commuter train to the Woodside station, where an elevator connects to the No. 7 line for the trip to Mets-Willets Point, where a ramp leads out of the station.
“It’s a process to get there,” Blair-Goldensohn said. “If accessibility was a priority, it would have been done and it could have been done.”
Bringmann noted that even in the best-case scenario the ADA work at the Mets-Willets Point station won’t be completed nearly a decade after the original 2016 target date.
“It’s in the works, it’s in planning — the response is always that it’s going to be part of the whole AirTrain project,” Bringmann said. “It’s embarrassing to have to wait this long.”