No end in sight to traffic mess near LaGuardia

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A parking garage is being torn down to make way for the new central terminal building at LaGuardia Airport.
A parking garage is being torn down to make way for the new central terminal building at LaGuardia Airport.

The contractor overseeing the rebuilding of LaGuardia Airport last week defended itself against criticism over traffic delays caused by construction, but the company also said it was taking more steps to help the roadways flow better.

Even so, critics said the contractor’s measures did not go far enough, and they predicted years of traffic congestion. Meanwhile, some agents said they have begun advising clients to avoid LaGuardia altogether.

“There have been plans in place a long time, and that’s why on most days the airport works fine,” Stewart Steeves, CEO of the prime contractor, LaGuardia Gateway Partners, said in an interview with Travel Weekly. “What we’re suggesting here is there is always opportunity for perpetual refinement.”

Traffic patterns were altered at LaGuardia on Aug. 7 to facilitate construction on Gateway Partners’ $4 billion portion of what will be an almost complete rebuild of LaGuardia over the next five years.

Two weeks later, on Aug. 22, traffic at LaGuardia ignited a New York-area media storm, including reports that some passengers had been seen walking down Grand Central Parkway toward the terminal, luggage in hand.

In the aftermath, the TSA issued an advisory recommending that travelers flying out of LaGuardia arrive at least two to two-and-a-half hours ahead of their scheduled departure.

The major change instituted on Aug. 7 was a roadway reconfiguration for those entering the airport via 94th Street, a move that Gateway Partners made to create space to construct a new parking garage.

Leading up to the reconfiguration, the contractor, in conjunction with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (which runs New York-area airports, including LaGuardia), took several steps designed to relieve congestion in front of the central terminal, also called Terminal B.

Notably, they opened a new cellphone lot that is free for up to two hours of use, designated an alternate passenger pickup lot so that greeters don’t have to make their pickups in front of the main terminal and relocated the taxi stand from the approach to the exit side of the main terminal.

Steeves said that LaGuardia has long faced traffic congestion problems, which is one reason the airport is being overhauled. He said that the problems on Aug. 22 were in large part due to bad weather the night before, which led to nearly 100 flight cancellations and resulted in passengers rebooking for that day.

Nevertheless, Steeves said that there are sure to be other days when unforeseen events will add to the passenger and traffic burden at LaGuardia as the project continues during the next five-plus years.

Both he and Cheryl Ann Albiez, a spokeswoman for the Port Authority, said they have already taken steps to improve traffic flow at the airport.

“It’s a lesson learned,” Albiez said. “They’re working to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.”

Adjustments made by Gateway Partners since Aug. 22 include improvements to signage and striping, realigned temporary roadway barriers, the elimination of inactive crosswalks and the installation of additional traffic-monitoring devices.

The contractor is also looking at how to improve the temporary roadway configuration, Steeves said.

Still, critics expressed skepticism that the steps taken will actually reduce traffic snarls around the airport.

Among them is Joseph Sitt, chairman of the Global Gateway Alliance (GGA), an advocacy group for users of the New York-area airports, who said last week that the measures taken by the Port Authority and Gateway Partners are not adequate.

“One of the questions we have is: If they had four years to plan this, why are they making these quick fixes now?” Sitt said.

The GGA has created a six-point list of steps it believes would be easy to implement and would help alleviate delays.

Those recommendations include an increase in park-and-ride lots; free bus service to LaGuardia on the newly renamed “LaGuardia Link” route in Queens; the launch of shuttle service to a nearby subway station; temporary ferry service to LaGuardia from Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens; opening temporary highway access ramps from the Grand Central Parkway; and launching a website and app that would provide real-time LaGuardia traffic updates.

Sitt predicted that days such as Aug. 22 will be repeated throughout the LaGuardia project if those changes aren’t made to the airport’s transit infrastructure.

In the meantime, the situation at LaGuardia has caused some travel agents to redirect clients to alternate airports in the area.

“We try to avoid [LaGuardia] when we can,” said Joshua Bush, CEO of Avenue Two Travel in Villanova, Pa. “If it’s apples to apples and it doesn’t make much difference to the client, we’re going to send them to an alternative airport.”

Omega World Travel is also directing clients to New York JFK and Newark airports when it makes sense, according to client services manager Timothy Jones.

But not all agents and agencies are taking that approach.

“I’ve had several dozen clients fly out of [LaGuardia] over the past few weeks, and not one client has complained about the traffic or missed a flight,” said Eric Hrubant, president of New York-based CIRE Travel, a division of Tzell.
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Senior editor Jamie Biesiada contributed to this report.

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