The Greatest Infrastructure in the World

Vice President Joe Biden is not a storehouse of memorable quotes. Most of us would be hard put to recall anything the affable veep ever said. With one exception. By now, just about every New Yorker can quote the not-so-affable remark he made comparing LaGuardia Airport to “a Third World country” during a visit to New York in 2014.

The truth hurts, as the developer Daniel R. Tishman, one of the envisioners of the LaGuardia Airport makeover, said. “It hurt me just as much as it hurt the governor when I heard the vice president’s remarks.” But these are not the type of guys to sit in a corner and feel sorry for themselves. They resolved to do something about it.

Both Tishman and Biden were on hand for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s announcement this week of an ambitious plan to give us the LaGuardia Airport we deserve. As Tishman also, quotably, said: “To be the greatest city in the world, you have to have the greatest infrastructure in the world.”

Ah, infrastructure. Everybody’s for it. Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders (Marco Rubio, too, if it still matters) all agree on one thing: America’s roads, bridges, airports and water systems are broken and have to be fixed.

But while the presidential candidates talk mostly about what America can do for you and your decrepit, dilapidated, decaying, done-for, Third World infrastructure, the onus for much of the actual renovation will be on your states and cities. As Robert Puentes, director of the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative at the Brookings Institution, points out, infrastructure is simply too vast and complicated a subject to be handled all from Washington.

Regardless of the campaign promises, “it’s going to be up to [the localities]. There isn’t going to be any cavalry coming to the rescue anytime soon,” says Puentes.

So it’s a good thing that New York, like other cities such as Los Angeles and Detroit, are taking the initiative. Nor is it just about LaGuardia. Besides the $4 billion LaGuardia project, the master planners are also throwing in a new bus terminal in Manhattan for around $15 billion.

Having concluded that LaGuardia was beyond any fix, Cuomo decided that the project should “replace the airport in its entirety.”

And that is what the master plan calls for: a single large terminal to replace the current four separate ones, and moving it closer to Grand Central Parkway to make room for flight operations and runways; a connection to the Willets Point subway station by AirTrain and ferries that dock at the Marine Air Terminal; a state-of-the-art security system; plus a hotel and business conference center.

All this is to be completed as early as the middle of 2017… or sometime in 2019, depending on which way the bureaucratic winds are blowing. That, too, might be an overly optimistic projection, given the way these “big-ticket” projects have a way of getting out of hand.

The official estimated cost of the LaGuardia rebuilding has also elicited a few titters among those in the know. The overruns on these big-ticket projects also tend to be big ticket — like the Denver International Airport renovations that came in $3.1 billion over budget; and, closer to home, the World Trade Center Transportation Hub, $2 billion over.

But the price of an exit ticket from the Third World isn’t measured only in dollars.

“It’s going to be a nightmare,” Robert Mann, an airline industry analyst, has warned. “This is going to be the equivalent of General Motors trying to change one of its models while the assembly line is still running. … But this is the way airports get redeveloped. Every airline understands this.”

In case every airline traveler reading Mann’s comment didn’t understand, what he was saying is that LaGuardia Airport will continue to operate while it is being “replaced in its entirety.”

We certainly hope that the responsible officers of the state and the Port Authority (which will oversee this) will make every effort to minimize the inconvenience to the public, and not to just expect us to “understand” that redoing major infrastructure unavoidably creates a nightmare.

To accomplish the remaking of LaGuardia Airport will require no small amount of engineering ingenuity, financial wizardry and political muscle. There’s enough of all that can-do spirit to go around that they can work out ways to reduce the nightmare effect, as well. We should not find ourselves waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat from a dream of being caught in a traffic jam at LaGuardia from which nobody ever returns.

Which brings to mind another quote from Vice President Biden (actually, we had to dig for it): “Reality has a way of intruding. Reality eventually intrudes on everything.”

Not bad. Let that be the watchword for LaGuardia Airport and all the other infrastructure renovations to come. Don’t lose sight of the realities.