Special Reports

Protecting airports from flooding and building out a ferry service option

A Q&A with Donovan Richards on how the water will be key to the future of New York City’s airports.

Queens Borough President Donovan Richards

Queens Borough President Donovan Richards Queens Borough President’s Office

Before he became Queens borough president, Donovan Richards served on the New York City Council, where he represented New York City Council District 31 in Southeast Queens from 2013 through 2020. After being elected as the 21st borough president of Queens, Richards got JetBlue to commit to keep its headquarters in the borough and help with the oversight of the redevelopments of both Kennedy and LaGuardia airports. City & State caught up with Richards to talk about keeping JetBlue in Queens, the airport overhauls and the impact of the redevelopment projects on the local community. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Who’s benefiting from the airport overhauls and is there a long-term creation of new jobs here, or are they mostly temporary?

For LaGuardia, Queens businesses were awarded close to $800 million in contracts. So that was a huge deal. Two billion dollars was awarded to MWBEs and we were very intentional on both projects. Congress Member Gregory Meeks wanted to see ownership, not just a contract to a plumber. We wanted owner stakes in these projects too. For JFK, one of the investors was Magic Johnson. It was critical for creating a pathway for upward mobility, as a gateway to the middle class.

We’re holding the Port Authority accountable for their numbers. A lot of LaGuardia projects weren’t under my purview, but based on what I have seen, a lot of good came out of that project. Out of the 10,000 jobs we project at JFK, 6,000 of them are union jobs. Terminal 1 at JFK has done $1 billion in MWBE.

I’ve used my office as a hub for all the offices to do events. It’s one thing for them to do community outreach, but we need to see it. I want to give credit to terminal directors. Every time we do events, they’re very diverse. It’s one thing to say Queens is one of the most diverse places in the world, but those opportunities need to reach those communities as well.

Terminal 1 has done $1 billion. I just met with Terminal 6 development. Their development numbers are also at 23% MWBE awarded. They’re at about $500 million awarded contracts. The goal is to get them to 30%. I’m more than confident they will get there. 

The other thing I’m paying close attention to is the concessionaire opportunities at the terminals. I want to make sure there are real local business enterprises at the JFK project as well. I feel good that there will be set-asides at JFK. Whenever you visit a kiosk there will be a variety of different choices.

Communities of color have largely not had access to capital. Many of these smaller firms start at a disadvantage. The other challenge is filling out the paperwork. You’re dealing with the feds and state. You have to have your paperwork intact. We have several offices for JFK where you can go in and get this assistance. What is good about this is you have local people in these jobs troubleshooting for the local firm. We have one in Jamaica. We opened one in Far Rockaway. And those are permanent offices. Whether you’re looking for an opportunity you can walk into these offices and find out what’s going on and where we get involved.

Does more still need to be done to boost runway capacity at New York City area airports, so as to further reduce flight delays? Have you looked at the land use implications of that, and would it even be possible?

Land use is not something we’re looking at now. There’s been talk of when Rikers Island is shut down, that you could expand. But those conversations are not happening right now.

The challenge with delays is not necessarily capacity. I have an aviation management degree. I had a keen interest in aviation. I never thought I was going to run for office. The challenge we have in aviation is there are severe shortages of air traffic controllers and pilots. I’m worried about the state of aviation in the future. We’re going to continue to see these delays. We’re in the process of working with August Martin High School and Aviation High School and we’ve forged a partnership to solidify more programming. The idea is to get their students to have real world experience at airports. Aviation has that and I want to get that for August Martin. I’m also pumping capital money from my own budget to build out the pipeline from elementary to college, especially for Southern Queens. York College also has aviation programming. Creating that pipeline is the key right now.

If there were another Superstorm Sandy, would the airports be safe and secure? 

We are working closely with the Army Corps. I just took a trip to Connecticut to look at Stamford’s hurricane barrier. We have to shore up Jamaica Bay, and all of our bays, and that is going to take billions of dollars. There’s an ongoing study we’re pushing the Army Corps to expedite as quickly as possible. Stamford’s was built in the 1960s. It covers over 200 acres of land and that’s really what we have to do in a time of climate change where we will see more extreme tidal flooding. It’s not going to take a hurricane. We’re seeing more of these events impacting Flushing Bay and Jamaica Bay. The key is to get the feds to put more money in ASAP. We did have some additional money from the boardwalk in Rockaway, about $200 million leftover, but there has to be close coordination with the feds on what they’re going to do.

A lot of this is federal and a lot is at stake with this presidential election. When Trump was president last time, he was trying to snatch some of this money away to states like Texas. I know the Biden infrastructure bill definitely helped us build out large-scale projects. We’re looking at whether the Army Corps can build artificial islands. We want less gray infrastructure like hardened barriers and we want more green infrastructure.

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

When I came into office, we were facing a looming deficit. The state and the city were facing deficits. It was hard to say the state should build out. We had communities in Elmhurst that were flooded out. It was hard to justify it with a deficit and homes underwater. A lot of people’s homes in Ditmars were affected by heavy construction at the airport. People’s foundations cracked and they needed to make these homeowners whole at the time. Also coming out of COVID-19 there were a lot of other priorities at the time, including new infrastructure at Elmhurst. So it’s hard to justify it when travel was significantly down. 

Instead they settled for these bus lanes. They need federal approval to move these bus lanes on the Grand Central Parkway.

I think there will be a time to revisit two things. We should revisit the AirTrain. I’m not saying with the proposal that they had before. Leroy Comrie and I have kicked around ideas before about whether we can connect it to the Jamaica AirTrain. If we’re going to reevaluate the AirTrain, eventually LaGuardia should connect to Jamaica, and that’s what I would be interested in seeing. 

We also have been speaking to the city about ferry service to LaGuardia. We have had extensive conversations with the New York City Economic Development Corp. I anticipate EDC will anticipate putting out an RFP on ferry service citywide, and it’s my hope they will include LaGuardia in the reimagining of the ferry system in Queens. I would love it at JFK but the first priority is LaGuardia. We have talked with people who have extensive experience with ferry service and they believe that this is doable.

How well are the airports doing in terms of minimizing noise for local residents? 

It’s not as simple as moving the flight path from Rosedale because the people from Springfield Gardens will get impacted. As aviation evolves, the best solution will be technology. Whoever is developing these planes will use technology and lessen the impacts on communities. The aviation industry is not going anywhere. JFK and LaGuardia are not moving. It’s a tricky balance. These are huge economic engines for us as well. But the impacts of noise and pollution are real. In places like Springfield Gardens, the Eastern Queens Alliance has noise monitors collecting data. In Rosedale where I live, those planes fly extremely low. It almost feels like you can touch the planes.

Anything else you’re focusing on in terms of the major airports in Queens? Any other policy issues or legislation?

The Port Authority is revamping its second chance job program. If you have an encounter with the criminal justice system, you can’t work in aviation, but the program has been very beneficial to JFK. It’s something I’m very appreciative of.

Also, we’re doing the Queens neighborhood bus redesign with the president of the MTA. We’re hosting elected officials so we can get everybody’s input now. One of the things we pushed on was to make sure there was more connectivity to bus service going to the airport. I anticipate a bus line like the Q77 will go into the airport. If you’re in Southeast Queens, you have to take the bus all the way to Jamaica Avenue. You were going backward to go forward.