Special Reports

Evaluating how the Port Authority is doing on MWBE contracting

A Q&A with Selvena Brooks-Powers on what airport redevelopment projects mean for New Yorkers.

New York City Council Member Selvena Brooks-Powers

New York City Council Member Selvena Brooks-Powers William Alatriste

Living in Far Rockaway, Queens, New York City Council Member Selvena Brooks-Powers, chair of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, has a good vantage point for monitoring progress on the redevelopment of John F. Kennedy Airport. She’s also keeping up with other projects, including shore resiliency to help prepare the airports for major weather events, and led a hearing in early April regarding the Port Authority’s transparency. City & State caught up with Brooks-Powers to learn the latest on improvements to New York’s airports and the impact airport redevelopment contracts have had on local communities, MWBEs and unionized labor. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are you looking at in terms of airports and aviation in the city? Is there any city legislation pending or any hearings coming up on this topic?

We’re interested in the current status and how the redevelopment of JFK is progressing. There have been several hearings already and another (on April 16) on helicopter traffic and noise too. In terms of legislation, we’re going to hear my bill, Intro. 134, which will codify reporting on the JFK redevelopment program that the (Economic Development Corp.) would be responsible for. In the lease agreement between the EDC and the Port Authority, there are metrics included in there that the Port Authority is required to report out quarterly. What we found … was that there was a need to have the quarterly report codified. It would also require EDC to give a report to the City Council.

What impact are the LaGuardia and JFK airport overhauls having on the city’s economy, as well as your district in Southeast Queens? Who’s benefiting?

The airports are major economic engines to the neighboring communities, since many of its workforce comes from the local community. In terms of dollars generated, billions of dollars are coming out of the aviation industry in the borough of Queens. When you talk about impact, there’s a huge economic impact on the community, including my district. It also has an environmental impact in terms of noise and air quality, and the redevelopment should incorporate resiliency and clean transportation components to be able to address some of that. The JFK redevelopment was stalled during COVID-19, but now it’s up and running with lease agreements.

You were previously a manager for MWBE compliance, external affairs and community outreach on a JFK Airport redevelopment program. How is the Port Authority doing in awarding contracts to minority- and women-owned firms?

When I started with the program as a manager, it was at its inception. We were working to create the community advisory council and identify key stakeholders. In terms of how the Port Authority is doing, early on there was some really great progress made. We saw over 84% of MWBE contracts who built that office out, which was the JFK redevelopment community information center. All of the contracts were from the local community with the exception of two. It was viewed as very successful and it set a new standard within the Port Authority, so much so that LaGuardia redevelopment went beyond the 84% and their numbers for MWBE participation are above (90%). More recently, while the development of terminals at JFK hover at 20%, there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done. It’s not really reflective of (the) diversity … that they committed to.

You’ve also worked on labor organizing campaigns in the past. What have these airport projects meant for working-class New Yorkers, including union members?

Let me break it down: As it pertains to JFK redevelopment, there’s a (project labor agreement) in place. That’s a union program. If you’re talking about a standard job at an airport like baggage handling that’s different.

I come out of the labor movement and I fully support and believe all people should have livable wages. I’ve participated in a number of actions at both airports calling for some of the tenants at the airport to negotiate in good faith with better wages, better benefits and treatment of the employees at the airport. In terms of construction jobs, there’s a PLA at JFK redevelopment. I’d love to see more members of my community on the path toward unionization. Labor is the front door to the middle class and I know the redevelopment early on had sought to work with the building trades. There are apprenticeship opportunities, but we have many skilled workers in Southeast Queens doing trade work for many years who are qualified and would benefit from being able to work on these programs. Creating space for people in the local community is a high priority as well.

Is shoreline resiliency a concern at all for LaGuardia and JFK?

Several years ago, we were talking about Superstorm Sandy and climate change as something we have to prepare for. But thanks to the more recent weather changes we have experienced, we know climate change is now here. It’s a concern for all of New York City and the airports are not exempt from that. We saw storms that led to massive flight cancellations at LaGuardia because of flooding from that storm. The new designs and airport improvements take resiliency into account. They have new flood barriers and they’re moving infrastructure to the roof. The conversation right now is implementing infrastructure to protect airports at the shoreline. That is definitely a focus and obviously my district is a coastal community so we’re looking at how we strengthen it. We can’t build for tomorrow when today is our new normal in terms of climate change.

What’s the latest on developing an alternative bus option instead of the scuttled LaGuardia AirTrain? Was this the right decision?

There is no direct connection from JFK to LaGuardia, but I think that one would be exciting. It’s pretty taxing to get to LaGuardia even from Southeast Queens. I know there’s a lot of work creating alternative bus options around LaGuardia. The Port Authority announced $30 million for planning and design for two projects to get people to LaGuardia faster. It would be great to get access to reliable, quicker transportation options and it would be great to see something connect from Southeast Queens to LaGuardia as well.

I would love to see an express bus get residents from Far Rockaway directly into JFK much more seamlessly. That would be a wonderful option that would connect communities to economic opportunities that exist around airports and help them be able to travel more.

I live within the Rockaways, and when I go to JFK, I often take the A train, and it depends on how reliable the A train is at the moment. It can take 45 minutes or more from the A train to the AirTrain, and that’s from Far Rockaway. Compared by car, it might shave off 15 to 20 minutes.

Early in the redevelopment there were conversations about an express bus, but there have been no commitments to date. Right now is the time to have these conversations with the MTA’s Queens bus redesign on the way. We also have a commuter van industry that is very much utilized in Southeast Queens. We would love to ask the MTA where they are regarding their plans to expand access to JFK. It’s something my colleagues (state) Sen. James Sanders and (Assembly Member) Khaleel Anderson have discussed as well.

Also activating QueensLink could unlock a lot of opportunity when you think of connecting different parts of the borough to the Aqueduct Resorts World, or JFK or the Rockaways. It has so much potential. I continue to advocate and ask the MTA to explore what that feasibility would look like to reactivate the QueensLink line. It has been generations since we really built a new train option in Queens.

And in terms of aviation in New York City, I did a tour of Vaughn College in Queens. They have a flight simulator, exploring a much quieter version of a helicopter to get people from point A to point B. It’s almost like using an app for Uber or Lyft to secure your seats. It’s an all-electric aircraft with Joby Aviation. The future of aviation is endless in terms of what the potential could be.

When we talk about JFK redevelopment, we could be creating a pipeline of the next generation of pilots. When people think about Southeast Queens, I want them to think aviation.