With plans to build an AirTrain terminal at Willets Point benched, accessibility advocates hope that long-delayed upgrades to the Long Island Rail Road station there will finally be on deck.
The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey on Tuesday opted to “pause further action” on the $2.1 billion rail connection between LaGuardia Airport, the No. 7 subway line and the LIRR’s Mets-Willets Point station. The move came after Gov. Kathy Hochul last week urged the agency to “thoroughly examine mass transit solutions” for cutting traffic to the airport.
The call by Hochul could derail the AirTrain idea that her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, pushed for and which the Federal Aviation Administration approved in July.
Critics labeled the plan the “wrong-way AirTrain” because it would have required travelers going to LaGuardia from Manhattan to catch the eastbound No. 7 to Mets-Willets Point before paying a second fare and hopping on a westbound AirTrain to the airport.
“We will offer [people] world-class mass transit opportunities to get from LaGuardia to the city,” Hochul said Wednesday. “I’ll get that done, but I want to take some breathing room to assess what’s been done in the past, what ideas were rejected and how we ended up with AirTrain in the first place.”
Meanwhile, the station complex — which serves anyone going to Citi Field, the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, the Queens Museum or the Queens Night Market — is still inaccessible for LIRR passengers who can’t navigate stairs.
Gerard Bringmann, an MTA board member and head of the Long Island Rail Road Commuter Council, said he will press agency officials to proceed with a project that was announced in 2014 — and included a long-broken pledge to make the commuter rail stop accessible to those with disabilities by 2016.
He said he was repeatedly told it was held up because of the larger Port Authority project at Willets Point.
“That was the pushback anytime I mentioned it, that they were waiting on final designs for the AirTrain,” Bringmann told THE CITY on Wednesday. “It’s a bit of an embarrassment, because it should have been done years ago.”
The 2014 plans included adding an elevator from the extended commuter rail platform to a path leading to Citi Field, the National Tennis Center and Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.
It would also make the Mets-Willets Point rail station — now only open mostly for events at Citi Field and the tennis center — a full-time stop with service to and from Penn Station and the new LIRR terminal beneath Grand Central that’s supposed to open late next year.
Valerie Gritsch, a Mets season-ticket holder, said she was so frustrated with the delays to the station overhaul that she replied to a January tweet from new team owner Steven Cohen about changes to Citi Field by asking him to “whip the MTA into gear” on the Americans with Disabilities Act project.
“He came in hot this year with all these great changes,” said Gritsch, whose disabilities include chronic pain that limits how much she can walk or take stairs. “The work on the station would be a very big change.”
Cohen did not reply to the tweet from Gritsch.
“It’s inconceivable that a major league ballpark and world class tennis stadium are not served by transit for all,” said Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA. “It can’t wait until the AirTrain is figured out, riders have waited too long already.”
On the Books
The MTA plans to make seven more LIRR stations accessible under the ADA — including Mets-Willets Point — as part of its $51 billion 2020-2024 capital program
But the MTA says there is no timetable for the project, adding that the status of the LaGuardia AirTrain “has no bearing” on future upgrades at the station.
Agency records pinned delays on plans to build an interim bus parking lot at the Casey Stengel Bus Depot next to the Tennis Center on “coordination with Port Authority AirTrain project.”
“We plan to make the LIRR’s Mets-Willets Point station completely ADA accessible so the fastest and greenest way to get to Mets games, U.S. Open Tennis and Flushing Meadows-Corona Park is available to everyone,” said David Steckel, an MTA spokesperson.
Gritsch, 31, said she usually gets to Citi Field by catching a ride with a friend or taking for-hire vehicles that drop her off and pick her up near the ballpark. She said she’s also struggled to get up and down the stairs to the LIRR station.
“I am using up my very limited energy just attempting to get into the ballpark,” Gritsch said.
Bringmann said Willets Point “really is not the place to run the AirTrain,” adding that other mass transit options, such as connecting an AirTrain with the LIRR and No. 7 train station at Woodside, should be considered.
But he said “there’s no reason” why the MTA can’t complete the long-overdue ADA project at Mets-Willets Point.
“It’s not going to be that we snap our fingers and this happens overnight,” he said. “But at least now we can push for it.”