New Jersey’s bipartisan lobbying effort to improve the daily commute of some 100,000-plus daily bus riders appears to have paid off.
Despite previous opposition from the New York members, the commissioners of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey -- which runs the bus station, PATH trains and the region’s three major airports -- unanimously approved a resolution yesterday to construct a new terminal one block west of the current structure at Eighth Avenue and 42nd Street.
But commissioners noted funding for the project must still be secured and it is not clear how, or if, the bus-terminal project might impact construction of new rail tunnels beneath the Hudson River -- expected to cost as much as $20 billion -- Port Authority commissioners said they were not sure where any of the money will come from at this point. The tunnel project is needed to reduce frequent delays for train riders, including commuters on New Jersey Transit trains.
Initial estimates suggest the new bus terminal could cost $10 billion and take 10 years to complete – some costs could be recouped through the eventual sale of the existing bus station, rental income and other sources.
The bus-station resolution calls for an international design competition to develop a plan for the new complex, with a winner to be selected in September 2016.
It also orders a comprehensive analysis of the capacity of all Hudson River bridges and tunnels, including the outdated, overtaxed rail connection to Penn Station.
New Jersey Democrats said the new bus facility could help alleviate a commuter crisis if the century-old rail tunnel under the Hudson River is ever unexpectedly closed.
They said they also hope the capacity study will further illustrate the urgent need to replace the antiquated train link, which carries New Jersey Transit and Amtrak trains to and from New York City and is the only Hudson River crossing on the critical Northeast Corridor route.
A new effort is underway to construct a new ‘Gateway’ tunnel, six years after Gov. Chris Christie scuttled a similar project.
“We’ve taken an important first step today, but we still have a lot of work to do. We have to find the money for this project…and a whole bunch of (other) capital projects,” said authority Chairman John Degnan, a New Jersey resident, after yesterday’s vote.
The vote drew praise from transit advocates and New Jersey lawmakers who had joined across party lines to urge the Port Authority to approve the plan for a new building, which will replace the 65-year-old complex now in use. Already outdated and overcrowded, experts say the existing facility will be unable to accommodate the estimated 50 percent hike in ridership anticipated by 2040. Proposals to expand or replace the station have been discussed for years, but several New York members of the Port Authority board had previously been hesitant to give high priority to a new bus station.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), Minority Leader Tom Kean (R-Union), and other Senate leaders sent a letter Wednesday to Degnan urging him and fellow commissioners to approve the plan at their Thursday meeting. The letter said building a new bus station was “essential to the region’s economic future” and would “minimize the impact on commuters” by allowing them to continue using the old facility while the new one is constructed.
“I guess the Port Authority was listening to us,” said Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-Bergen) said after the meeting. “It’s shameful that the quality of life for commuters from New Jersey has been so degraded,” he added, noting that the Port Authority has made little investment in the bus complex over the years.Senator Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), a sharp critic of the agency, suggested the joint letter had an impact. “It’s taken two years to get to this point and I am proud. When we do get together in a bipartisan manner we can literally move mountains,” she said.
Sweeney and Weinberg witnessed first-hand the problems commuters face daily during a tour of the outdated bus station last week: substandard bathrooms and waiting areas, poor climate control, and seemingly endless lines.
They are leading the state Senate Oversight Committee that has been examining Port Authority operations in the wake of the “Bridgegate” scandal of 2013. Degnan is scheduled to appear at the committee’s next meeting, on October 28, to discuss the bus-terminal project and other elements of the agency’s capital plan.
Although they did not make copies available after Thursday’s meeting, Port Authority officials said the resolution kicks off an international design competition to generate proposals for a new facility between Ninth and 11th avenues, at 42nd Street – and encourages designers to consider other possible sites, if needed. The proposals will also include ideas for a pedestrian connection to the city subway system, at Eighth Avenue.
In addition, the resolution calls for the agency to start soliciting public and stakeholder input before a design is selected and to work with city and state agencies to secure permits in advance. The resolution also empowers the Bus Terminal Working Group – which developed the resolution – to continue its oversight as the project develops.
Transit advocates welcomed the news, but urged the Port Authority to not get too bogged down in the design competition.
“We’re working under a very tight timeframe here and we need to balance the creativity with fiscal prudence here,” Janna Chernetz of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign told the commissioners.
“A design competition sounds terrific,” said Martin Robins, a senior fellow at Rutgers University and a respected transportation expert. “It can get you off track, but it can also produce some very useful new concepts,” he said.
The critical question is how the competition is designed, Robins said, and what is spelled out in the guidelines. “It can’t get lost in beautiful things; it has to have a very practical base,” he said.