By Tina Susman

LaGuardia Airport was born of controversy after Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, miffed that his city did not have its own airport, refused to exit a plane that had landed at Newark Liberty International Airport in neighboring New Jersey.

Seventy-six years and countless insults later, LaGuardia Airport will be reborn of controversy if a promise made Monday by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is kept.

Cuomo, joined by Vice President Joe Biden, who famously compared LaGuardia to an airport in a "third world country," said ground would be broken next year on a new airport. "Believe it or not," he said, reflecting the skepticism that has greeted past vows of major infrastructure improvements.

"It's not a plan, it's not a sketch, it's not a dream. It's a vision," Cuomo said. "It is actually happening."

According to Cuomo, the $4-billion project will expand LaGuardia's notoriously tight quarters by shifting the airport's footprint 600 feet. He said that would create space for more airline gates, for one new terminal to replace the four disjointed ones, and for construction of rail and ferry links, among other improvements.

Private funding will cover more than half the cost of the project, with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the area's major airports, paying for the rest, Cuomo said.

An announcement about the remaking of LaGuardia had been expected, as pressure to do something about the overcrowded, run-down facility has been building for years.

In addition to being far too small to handle the more than 26 million passengers it sees each year, LaGuardia has no direct rail links to New York City.

If it comes to fruition, the new facility would be the country's first new airport since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which ushered in new security requirements for travelers and underscored the need for more space to accommodate them.

In his state of the state address last year, Cuomo described LaGuardia, with its delays, crowded conditions, lack of amenities and dismal infrastructure, as "a disgrace." Five years ago, Christopher Ward, who was then head of the Port Authority, suggested LaGuardia be torn down. And last year, Biden said that a blindfolded traveler landing at LaGuardia might think they were "in some third world country."

That stinging comment drew laughs from listeners and knowing chuckles from weary travelers, but it rankled the Global Gateway Alliance, a nonprofit that said the airport needed public financing, not insults, to fix its problems.

Biden's comments apparently expedited that effort, and the alliance's chairman, Joseph Sitt, welcomed Monday's announcement and Cuomo's vows to improve other regional airports.

"It's a win for the more than 117 million annual passengers that use our airports and for a regional economy that relies on the airports for more than $50 billion in activity," Sitt said in a statement, which warned officials to stick to their budget and timelines.

Other changes announced by Cuomo include construction of a 500-room hotel at John F. Kennedy International Airport, and changes to Stewart Airport 60 miles north of New York City to enable it to handle some commercial and cargo air traffic clogging skies to the south.

But it was the LaGuardia announcement that drew the greatest attention and that was presented with the flourish of the Emmy nominations. Videos featured former President Clinton and historian and author writer Robert Caro praising the plan.

Photographs of LaGuardia Airport now, showing its disconnected terminals and gray runways jutting into Flushing Bay, flashed alongside pictures of the future LaGuardia, looking sleek and glamorous at twilight and sunny and cheerful by day. One picture showed a ferry, labeled LGA Express, docking at the airport, as people walked along waterside, tree-lined plazas.

Some things appear to be missing from the revamp, which Cuomo said will take place as the airport continues operating. He made no mention of extending either of LaGuardia's 7,000-foot-long runways, and the renditions did not show runways being added.

JFK and Newark, which unlike LaGuardia handle international flights, have four and three runways, respectively.

Delta, which owns and operates two LaGuardia terminals, was described by Cuomo as a partner in the project. The Atlanta-based airline has spent $160 million improving its terminals there.

Delta President Ed Bastian commended Cuomo for the reconstruction plan and said the initiative "aligned with our ongoing commitment to providing an exceptional experience for anyone traveling through New York for business or pleasure."

"We look forward to working in partnership with the governor's design commission," Bastian's statement said in part.

Biden joked that after his "third world" comment last year, his pilots on Air Force Two joked that they might not get clearance to land at LaGuardia again. He said the changes would give New York City, which last year drew 56.4 million visitors, the airport it deserves and expedite improvements at other U.S. airports, which surveys show lag far behind international airports in passenger amenities.

"Just as America leads the world," Biden said, "New York leads America."

(c)2015 the Los Angeles Times