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Could Rikers Island spell relief for busy LaGuardia Airport?

FILE - In this June 20, 2014, file photo, New York City's Rikers Island jail complex, center, is seen with LaGuardia Airport on the upper left, and the Manhattan skyline in the background at center. A commission urging the city to close the massive jail complex says an option for reusing the space could be a new runway and terminal extension of LaGuardia Airport, which last year had by far the highest rate of late-arriving flights of any of the nation's 29 biggest airports. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

NEW YORK (AP) — Travelers stuck in endless delays at New York City’s cramped and congested LaGuardia Airport can feel like prisoners. Now there’s a plan to liberate them by closing the city’s most notorious jail.

A commission that helped persuade city officials to eventually close New York’s violent jail complex on Rikers Island said the 400 acres could be redeveloped as a new runway and terminal extension for LaGuardia. The island sits just off one of the runways at LaGuardia, which is squeezed onto a narrow strip of land at the edge of Flushing Bay.

That idea is being met positively by some who say it would help improve air service and increase capacity at an aging airport that is among the most ridiculed in America.

Last year it had by far the highest rate of late-arriving flights among the nation’s big airports. And then-Vice President Joe Biden highlighted its wear and grime in 2014 when he quipped that a visitor who didn’t know better would think he had arrived in a Third World country.

“This for us, we think would be a dream come true,” said Joseph Sitt, a real estate developer and chairman of the Global Gateway Alliance, a group that advocates for improvements to the region’s airport system.

But skeptics scoff at the $22 billion estimated cost of the plan, pointing out that LaGuardia is already in the beginning stages of a multi-year, $4 billion overhaul. They also say it would increase noise over nearby neighborhoods and wouldn’t solve the bigger problem of New York’s congested airspace.

“All this needs is $22 billion of new, imaginary funds,” said Robert Mann, an aviation consultant who lives nearby, in Port Washington, New York. “If it wasn’t for the hideous amounts of money involved and the huge impact on the surrounding communities, I suppose it would be a good thing.”

Mann also questioned the wisdom of the proposed east-west runway, which would be a different orientation than the two existing runways at LaGuardia, John F. Kennedy International Airport and Newark Liberty International Airport, and could make flying in and out of the area even more complicated than it is already.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last week that the city would develop a plan to shut Rikers over the next decade, replacing a centralized jail plagued by violence and abuse with smaller jails in each of the city’s five boroughs. His decision came just days before the release of recommendations by an independent commission that had been looking into the jail’s place in the city’s criminal justice system.

In its report, the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform said a third runway for LaGuardia could increase flight capacity 40 percent and a new terminal that could be used for an additional 12 million passengers.

The $22 billion cost includes the expense of demolishing the jail, cleaning up polluted soil and the construction of nearly $11 billion in other types of public infrastructure on the island, including a wastewater treatment facility, a solar field and a public greenway.

A second concept floated by the commission would drop the airport expansion but include many of those other infrastructure projects, and cost about $15 billion.

The commission noted there are constraints for what can be done with Rikers Island. Being next to LaGuardia limits the height of what can be built there. The island is now accessible only by a single, long causeway.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees the airports, had no comment. The Federal Aviation Administration declined to comment, as well. A spokeswoman for the mayor said that a decision on what to do with the island after a closure of Rikers is years away, but that nothing is being ruled out.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo broke ground last year on a LaGuardia’s redevelopment project that includes a new 1.3 million-square-foot, 35-gate central terminal, expected to be finished by 2022.

Asked about the possible use of Rikers for a LaGuardia expansion, Cuomo’s administration pointed out a redevelopment is already underway. But Cuomo has expressed interest in the idea, saying in September to a civic group that he was “very intrigued” by the idea. He publicly supported the closing of the prison, on humanitarian grounds.

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Koenig reported from Dallas.

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