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Biden and Trump Agree on One Thing: LaGuardia Airport Needs an Upgrade

And it's getting one, in part thanks to the nation's largest public-private partnership.

Airports in the U.S. are in disrepair, but LaGuardia Airport in New York City may be the most pilloried of them all. 

Vice President Joe Biden famously mocked La Guardia in 2014 as a “third world airport,” a charge that Donald Trump repeated earlier this year. The airport in Queens also consistently scores among the lowest in customer satisfaction surveys.

All of the negative publicity hasn’t gone over well with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who lamented that the crowded terminals, scant amenities and poor ontime performance at the airport were “un-New York.” But turning around the airport is no easy task, so Cuomo has championed a plan with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the airport, to undertake a complete rebuilding job using the nation’s largest public-private partnership.

Construction started this summer on the $4 billion project, which will scrap the current hub-and-spoke design of the main terminal and replace it with two islands of gates connected to the main terminal building with pedestrian bridges. The new design gives airplanes more room to maneuver in and out of gates, addressing the cramped spaces that are one of the biggest reasons for flight delays at the airport. 

All of the design, construction, operation and maintenance of the new terminal will be carried out by private companies that have formed LaGuardia Gateway Partners. The group is putting up $2.6 billion of the cost and will run the terminal through 2050. 

The public-private partnership reduces the risk of cost overruns, delays and poor construction, says Johan Henriksson, a top official with the construction firm Skanska, one of the companies in the consortium. The partnership has a vested interest in providing amenities customers want because it will be operating the terminal and collecting rents for decades to come.

But the biggest benefit might be how quickly the private companies can start to turn things around. “This discussion about LaGuardia not being up to par has been a discussion that’s been going on for a long time,” Henriksson says. “But now it is finally getting off the ground. Without the P3 structure, it would be hard to do that.” 

The approach has impressed Biden, who returned to LaGuardia this summer to help break ground for the renovations. “Best of all, it’s not a plan,” the vice president said. “It’s not a sketch, it’s not a dream, it’s not a vision. It is actually happening.”

Dan is Governing’s transportation and infrastructure reporter.
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