$4 Billion Redevelopment of Aging LaGuardia Airport Approved

An air traffic control tower rises above a ramp serving LaGuardia Airport in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
An air traffic control tower rises above a ramp serving LaGuardia Airport in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

A $4 billion redevelopment of aging LaGuardia Airport was approved on Thursday after an unusually contentious board meeting that exposed divisions between members on how much the project is going to cost and how it should be managed.

The resolution ultimately passed unanimously but with an asterisk: Port Authority board members also voted to rewrite policies governing how large-scale projects are approved.

The move was prompted by board member Kenneth Lipper’s strong opposition to the LaGuardia resolution’s giving more power to the Port Authority’s executive director and a subcommittee instead of to the board.

Lipper expressed concern that the airport redevelopment would go the way of the World Trade Center transportation hub, which changed scope several times and has cost billions more than projected. He called the initial LaGuardia resolution “illegal and a dereliction of duty.”

That generated harsh words from other board members. At one point Executive Director Patrick Foye said he would recommend Gov. Andrew Cuomo veto Lipper’s resolution.

The tone grew more tense when Foye and Chairman John Degnan sparred over the cost of the LaGuardia project. Foye castigated a published report that put the total cost at over $5 billion; Degnan followed by saying the report was accurate and that he “completely disassociated” himself from Foye’s comments.

The overhaul will remake the airport’s footprint and build a new central terminal to replace the cramped, boomerang-shaped edifice that opened in 1964. Vice President Joe Biden likened the airport to “a Third World Country” during a visit in 2014.

The action on LaGuardia was one of several big-ticket items taken up Thursday. The board also voted to build a planned new bus terminal in Manhattan, allaying concerns from New Jersey politicians that it would be built in New Jersey. It’s expected to cost up to $15 billion.

Additionally, the board approved a $2.3 billion project to build a new Terminal A at Newark Liberty Airport. It also approved a memorandum of understanding between the Port Authority, federal Department of Transportation, Amtrak and New Jersey Transit on the management of the estimated $20 billion Gateway project to build a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River and make several other major infrastructure improvements.

The Port Authority has endured sustained criticism for the 2013 George Washington Bridge lane-closing scandal, which led to criminal charges against two former executives and investigations by federal agencies over its business practices. Among the byproducts of its efforts to be more transparent in the wake of those developments are scenes like Thursday’s.

“Openness and transparency, which has been urged on this agency for years, are missing, but when working properly they get things done,” Degnan said. “…The fact that it included some disagreements — don’t complain about what you asked for.”