Special Reports

Solving the traffic frustrations around New York City’s airports

A Q&A with state Sen. Leroy Comrie on how the renovations at airports are benefiting Southeast Queens.

State Sen. Leroy Comrie

State Sen. Leroy Comrie State Senate

State Sen. Leroy Comrie served 12 years on the New York City Council before he was elected in 2014 to represent the 14th Senate District in Southeast Queens. As head of the state Senate Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions, Comrie has oversight over the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, as well as other government entities, including the New York City Housing Authority and Metropolitan Transportation Authority. He opposed the Port Authority’s LaGuardia AirTrain proposal, encouraged the authority to hire locally for positions created by its capital development projects and compelled the agency to be more transparent with its records.

City & State caught up with Comrie to check in on the redevelopments of LaGuardia and Kennedy airports, ask how the overhauls are paying off for the local community and updates on access to the airports, as well noise mitigation. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What impact are the LaGuardia and Kennedy airport overhauls having on your district in Southeast Queens and the city at large?

The impact from LaGuardia has improved traffic flow. There’s been easier traffic flow because of the rerouting, it has created fewer traffic hassles during rush hour. The new terminals are spacious – there’s a lot of walking but they’ve created a better quality of service in the airports. They allow for more space for passenger access to arrive and leave the facilities.

But JFK is still a work in progress. They still have four terminals to do, and it’s going to be a while. There’s still a lot of traffic access there, but there should be better access getting into and out of the airport. Going down the Van Wyck is still difficult, even at midnight. Hopefully when the work is done those issues will dissipate. We need better accessibility for people to get in and out of the airports, but they’re doing a better job in those areas.

As far as the impact on the local economy, it should be better and I’m disappointed. Neither LaGuardia or Kennedy have done enough to make sure local restaurants have been able to benefit from the construction work going on. LaGuardia doesn’t have any local entities able to establish restaurants or kiosks. That’s been a great deal of frustration. They were supposed to create a guide for people waiting for local establishments for a place to eat within the LaGuardia footprint.

As far as (MWBEs), both were under 10% and LaGuardia was under 5% minority firms.

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

They are creating new jobs in terms of people who are working at stores that opened within the terminals. There were construction jobs, and there are more jobs for those doing the service at the airport. But we have concerns about the ability for people to have permanent jobs. A lot were subbed out to third-party companies that are not paying union wages and are not unionizing employees.

Most of the service jobs there are not unionized, like folks that are working as air baggage handlers. The percentage of (contracts) that are going to minority firms is less than 5%. Elected officials in Southeast Queens have been requesting numbers and we have not been getting them. We’re asking for the Port Authority to give us numbers and request a hearing at the state level. They refused to meet.

Is there any state-level legislation pending or any hearings coming up on this topic?

We’re working on scheduling a hearing with the Port Authority to talk about the airports and what the disparities are. Because we’re waiting for them to make some goals, which they haven’t met, we will do some legislation on transparency. We’re encouraging bistate agencies to come before the public. They should come for biannual updates like other entities that are getting money from the public.

Does more still need to be done to boost runway capacity to further reduce flight delays? Have you looked at the land use implications of that?

We’ve talked about it in the original plan to be able to increase runway capacity. I think they’re working on runways on LaGuardia. But they’re talking about increasing runway capacity at both spots and for scheduling to improve. To increase the frequency of aircrafts as well, but I haven’t heard any updates on that. That was part of their original design goal. Using Rikers as a runway, that’s an expensive option. I haven’t heard any new information on that.

Is shoreline resiliency a concern at all for LaGuardia and Kennedy? If there were another Superstorm Sandy, would the airports be safe and secure?

They both have received money on the federal level for resiliency plans. I believe they’re in the process of addressing them. Yes, we have concerns. Clearly there would be a problem. 

Just before the last storm, they did some additional buffers to create some shoreline resiliency, but if you look at estimated models for flood plains in the next 30 years, and models the mayor’s office put out, both airports could be underwater.

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

I haven’t heard anything or seen anything. It’s another pending issue. The Port Authority’s proposal was horrible and counterproductive. The last meeting we had about them, that we proposed, they said it was not functional and they didn’t think we could build anything that wasn’t on the highway going into LaGuardia because of the height of the planes that have to fly in. There have been other discussions, but they’ve been slow to work with. Nothing has come to a final decision.

I would like to see a one-train ride from Kennedy to LaGuardia to Manhattan. I would like to see more buses that go directly into both airports from the community. You can’t get from the Rockaways directly to JFK. There’s a lot of workers out there. I’d like to see more express buses that get people back and forth from Queens to both airports and from Queens to Manhattan. And we should figure out a rail solution. It’s been very disappointing that they couldn’t come up with a bus solution to make something happen. Both the Port Authority and MTA have been negative about any option that’s been proposed. They still haven’t resolved the fact that their original idea is not going to happen. When agencies don’t like ideas, they come up with a thousand reasons why they shouldn’t do something.

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

It’s an issue that’s of concern to the community. People are concerned about low flights flying late evening and early morning, creating the amount of noise and vibration that’s kept them awake. There’s been a push back and forth, between Long Island residents and Queens residents who get the noise from the flight path. The airport community advisory group meets on a monthly basis with the borough president’s office to discuss this.