She loves that it’s a visually beautiful neighborhood, filled with trees and an open unobstructed view of Flushing Bay.
But like many of her neighbors, Cunningham believes the creation of an AirTrain between Willets Point and LaGuardia Airport would take that all away.
“If they put the AirTrain through the median, people lose everything,” she said. “It messes with people’s quality of life.”
Cunningham is among many concerned neighbors who make up the Ditmars Boulevard Block Association. Last Wednesday evening, they met to discuss some of the reasons they oppose the Port Authority and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed AirTrain.
Residents say they are concerned about the environmental and health impact from nitrogen oxide gas emissions. They’re already sick of the construction that they say has torn up the neighborhood, from water main problems to damaged houses.
Worst of all, they fear that the LaGuardia AirTrain will run through the median of the Grand Central Parkway as high as 80 feet in the air, stripping away any sense of privacy and blocking previous views that they consider paramount to the neighborhood.
Members of the block association also say they feel misled by the Port Authority, who they say have declined to provide them any studies that show the AirTrain is the best mass transit option for travelers.
“These people don’t live over here, they don’t experience anything we’ve ever experienced,” Cunningham said. “They come over here and do whatever they want to. We cannot let that happen, we cannot give up our neighborhood like that.”
Marie Gayle, who has lived in East Elmhurst since 1971, believes the Port Authority hasn’t even done the “proper studies” to show the AirTrain makes sense. In her eyes, Governor Cuomo ordered for it to be done, and people went about to accommodate the request.
“In this particular case, I don’t think an AirTrain is really the answer because of the short distance,” Gayle said, referring to the distance between Willets Point and LaGuardia Airport. “Also, the way they’re planning to do it, you almost go past the airport and then you come back.”
There are alternative routes other than the median along Grand Central, such as on the promenade or the bay itself. But residents say they prefer not to have the elevated train at all.
To scrap the AirTrain altogether, some residents want to run an electric bus with a dedicated traffic lane down 126th Street or use ferry service. According to residents, the Port Authority has “not taken any interest” in exploring those options.
James Carriero, an attorney who has lived in the area since 1988, recalled that in the 1990s, transit officials considered extending the N train to LaGuardia Airport, but declined because they didn’t want the subway line continuing past all of the homes in Astoria.
“But that’s exactly what we’re getting here,” he said. “It’s like putting an elevated subway line right in somebody’s backyard.”
Carriero estimated that the AirTrain would have to go 70 to 80 feet in the air because it needs to go over the elevated 7 train line and the entrances on the highway. He said that’s much higher than the JFK AirTrain along the Van Wyck Expressway.
In addition to the privacy concerns, Carriero said neighbors already face problems with the current construction at LaGuardia Airport. He said he often can’t back his car out of the driveway because of the redirected truck traffic.
Frank Taylor, who has lived on Ditmars Boulevard since 2001, gave the governor and Port Authority some credit for positive community benefits, such as investments to the organization Elmcor.
But he chided the government officials for not listening to the concerns of middle class homeowners like himself, most of whom in the area are Democrats.
“We’re treated by fellow Democrats in Albany like we don’t exist,” Taylor said. “That is something that is unfathomable, it’s not understandable.”
Fellow resident Patrick Saint-Jean, a nine-year resident of Ditmars, has already faced damages to his property from the pile driving. He predicts the harm will only worsen once construction for the AirTrain begins.
Saint-Jean said he doesn’t buy that the AirTrain, as intended, will move travelers away from cars that clutter the Grand Central Parkway. Instead, he predicts people will still travel by car because going by train and rail will still “take you longer.”
Carriero said even though the governor wants the AirTrain to be a one-seat, 30-minute ride from Manhattan to LaGuardia, the current public transportation situation still won’t allow for it, especially if passengers are taking the crowded 7 train.
“So you have to ask yourself, who is this train for?” he said. “People from Midtown Manhattan who can afford to take the LIRR, or people who take the subway?”
He also expressed concerns for families traveling with children while also carrying luggage and other possessions.
“Are they going to get on the 7 train and get off Willets Point, get on another train and go to the airport?” Carriero said. “No, they will want a direct, single ride. They’ll probably take a cab.”
In a statement, the Port Authority said the traveling public, transportation experts, business leaders, elected and community leaders “all agree” that the region needs better access to LaGuardia Airport.
“And that won’t come from increasingly congested roadways,” the Port Authority said. “It has to be rail and it has to be reliable.”
It added that community engagement must continue to be robust as they move forward with the environmental review process. According to residents, the Port Authority is now opening a Request for Proposals (RFP) for engineering firms to conduct the impact study.
“The extensive community engagement we’ve conducted to date resulted in feedback favoring an alignment north of the Grand Central Parkway, which prompted legislation approved by the Senate and Assembly allowing this corridor to be considered,” the Port Authority added. “Further public input will continue to be critical, and is in fact required, and we will work closely with the FAA to ensure this happens in a transparent fashion.”
East Elmhurst residents, however, say they remain determined to fight the AirTrain proposal, even if it means taking on powerful authorities.
“They need to know that East Elmhurst is not going to lay down and just let this happen,” Cunningham said. “I’ve been here all my life, this is East Elmhurst as I know it. There’s a quality of life we want to maintain for now and every other generation.”