LaGuardia work causing jumbo jet-sized headaches

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NEW YORK >> Vice President Joe Biden's bleak assessment of New York's La Guardia Airport as "third-world" propelled a complete reconstruction. But the path to a modern La Guardia was not supposed to include travelers dragging luggage through gridlocked traffic on a highway to catch their flights.

Now it does.

The most ambitious airport project in the country, an eight-year, $8 billion plan to turn La Guardia into a first-class travel hub has barely begun, but social media has already been flooded with tales and images of taxis and buses mired in traffic jams, unable to get anywhere near terminals to pick up and drop off passengers.

On Monday, a particularly bad day, some harried travelers abandoned cars and navigated the clogged Grand Central Parkway — the main highway serving La Guardia — on foot with suitcases in tow. Such traffic debacles have become so common that seasoned fliers and travel bloggers have recommended avoiding La Guardia altogether, perhaps for years to come.

The Transportation Security Administration has warned travelers to arrive at La Guardia "a minimum" of 2 to 2 1/2 hours before takeoff, and maybe even earlier around holiday weekends.

Under any circumstances, turning the La Guardia that Biden derided in 2014 into the "globally renowned, 21st-century airport" that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York has promised would be an impressive feat. Doing it within the airport's confined space without disrupting the steady flow of planes and travelers is shaping up to be a monumental one.

Alan Snitow, a marketing and brand strategy consultant from Chicago, said he might steer clear of La Guardia, after the traffic jam on Monday made him late for a meeting with new clients in Manhattan.

"It was a disaster, and so much so that I'm literally planning to avoid it," Snitow, 40, said later that day as he waited to catch a flight home from Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey. "For sure on my next trip I'm going to look into Newark."

Accounts like that have alarmed John J. Degnan, chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates La Guardia. He said the benefits of overhauling the airport should not come at the cost of maddening delays for travelers.

"I've heard too many stories about people missing flights and abandoning taxis to carry their bags, and a trip from car to terminal taking more than half an hour, sometimes as much as an hour," Degnan said in an interview. "It's totally unacceptable to expect the traveling public to put up with these conditions for a multiple-year period."

Port Authority officials said traffic had improved after adjustments were made in recent days. But the mounting complaints do not bode well for an airport that is critical to New York, because it is the airfield closest to Manhattan, and is poorly served by public transit. More than 28 million passengers a year use La Guardia, making it one of the 20 busiest airports in the country.

The rebuilding plans include replacing the central terminal, known as Terminal B, by razing a nearby parking garage and erecting a new central terminal in its place. Two new concourses will also be built and connected to the new terminal with pedestrian bridges high enough for a Boeing 757 to pass under. And that is just the section of the airport that the Port Authority has been intending to rebuild for years.

In July, Delta Air Lines agreed to spend more than $3 billion to replace the two terminals it occupies with a new one, in hopes of unifying La Guardia's design. As with the existing central terminal, Delta's terminals — known as Terminals C and D — will remain fully operational while their replacement is built.

Port Authority officials hope to open both new terminals to travelers by the end of 2020, Richard J. Smyth, the agency's project executive, said. The entire job is scheduled to be completed by 2024.

By then, the amount spent by the Port Authority, Delta and LaGuardia Gateway Partners, a consortium of developers building the new central terminal, is likely to have surpassed the projected $8 billion cost.

At a meeting of the Port Authority board in July, Degnan asked Patrick J. Foye, the agency's executive director, how confident he was that "we'll be able to manage the total reconstruction of the airport at one time."

Foye said the developers intended to get the work done with "a minimum of customer disruption." But many who have flown into or out of La Guardia this summer might argue that standard has been missed by a wide margin.

Ruby-Beth Buitekant, 29, a second-year student at the City University of New York School of Law, said she had become so frustrated in a livery cab that was stuck in traffic at the airport's entrance that she decided to scramble out.

"I'd seen two people get out of cabs already and just wheel their suitcases" the rest of the way, Buitekant said.

She said that neither she nor her driver could recall such a chaotic scene outside the airport, and she began to worry about missing her flight to Atlanta. So, despite the driver's concern that it was unsafe, Buitekant rolled her carry-on bag between lanes of standstill traffic to get to the terminal in time to make her flight, she said.

Kenny Weiss, who lives in Haworth, New Jersey, said he was dropping off a friend at La Guardia when he saw some harried travelers on an exit ramp. "They were trying to wheel luggage through the cars," he said. "It was a real nightmare on all fronts."

Weiss said his round trip took more than four hours. "I understand they are renovating, but how about hiring security and staff to give directions" and to "help things move smoothly," he said.

The snarls have prompted some travel advisers, including Zach Honig, editor-in-chief of The Points Guy, to suggest bypassing La Guardia in favor of Newark Liberty or Kennedy International airports.

The Port Authority, Honig noted, has been advising travelers to use public transportation to get to the airport, but the only options are buses that have also been getting trapped in traffic. He said a driver with the car service Uber had told him that other drivers were avoiding La Guardia because of the worsening situation.

Cuomo's grand vision for the airport includes building an elevated train like those used at Newark Liberty and Kennedy to connect to municipal transit systems. But such a connection would come only after the new terminals open, and the Port Authority has not allotted any money for it in its long-term capital budget. In the meantime, Cuomo has called on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to rebrand the Q70 bus, which connects the airport to the Long Island Rail Road and the nearest subway, as the LaGuardia Link.

Stewart Steeves, chief executive of LaGuardia Gateway Partners, said the airport's congestion problems were "not a new thing," adding, "that's why La Guardia needs to get fixed."

Representatives of the consortium and the Port Authority, Smyth said, have discussed ways of preventing more tie-ups like the one on Monday. He described the cause of that mess as a "confluence of events" that included nearly 100 canceled flights on Sunday and a security breach that briefly shut down Terminal B on Monday.

Coordinating all of the demolition and construction planned on the square-mile site is the responsibility of Smyth, who operates from makeshift quarters in a building on the other side of the Grand Central Parkway.

He convenes weekly meetings with the developers, contractors and Delta representatives to discuss progress and to share details down to the rivets and joists. A digital project-management system overlays all of the models for the new structures so that potential conflicts can be spotted before they occur.

So far, most of the work has been destructive: Workers have demolished hangars and are taking down the 2,000-space parking garage in front of the central terminal. They have begun work on a new, 3,200-space garage that Smyth said should alleviate parking and traffic hassles when it opens in 2018.

By then, he said, the developers hope to open the first set of new gates in the new central terminal while it is under construction. If all goes according to plan, one morning in early 2020, Port Authority officials will unlock the doors and thousands of travelers will stream through a gleaming, airy gateway that in no way reminds them of the La Guardia of Biden's despair.


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