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Port Authority Urged to Keep Pedal to Metal on New Bus Terminal Project

Although new facility may not be operational for as much as a decade, lawmakers and experts are making it clear that delays will not be taken lightly

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey doesn’t look to be creeping along in the slow lane when it comes to the new bus terminal it recommitted to building just a few months ago. Its international design competition is well underway, and it just announced that the $10 billion project could be a done deal in seven to 10 years.

That might seem like a long time, but it is on course to open before the planned Gateway rail tunnel. Still, Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) doesn't want to see the new bus terminal hit with delays.

“We can’t wait forever,” he said.

Sarlo, a member of the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee, was speaking during a hearing yesterday in Fair Lawn with Port Authority officials and other transportation experts.

And sooner is definitely better than later for the 232,000 daily riders (100,000 from the Garden State) who crowd through the overcapacity 1950s-era terminal daily, stepping around the homeless and dodging puddles from the leaky roof.

Built 65 years ago, the bus terminal at Eighth Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan is one of several major infrastructure projects that the bistate Port Authority has been under pressure to focus on in recent years after the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal exposed interstate rivalries between commissioners from New Jersey and New York.

The Port Authority is now playing a big role in the planned Gateway rail-tunnel project, which is also aimed at improving trans-Hudson capacity. And earlier this year the commissioners voted to seek designs for the long-planned replacement of its midtown Manhattan bus terminal.

While some in New York wanted the agency to consider moving the bus terminal across the river, New Jersey commissioners successfully fought earlier this year to keep the planned facility in its current neighborhood, though an exact location is still up in the air.

A great deal will depend on the final concept that is selected later this year as what’s being billed as an international design competition wraps up, explained Mark Muriello, the agency’s assistant director of tunnels, bridges and terminals, during the hearing.

Initial submissions have already been received and as many as five finalists could be selected to continue competing in a next phase of the process scheduled to get underway next month. A final recommendation -- the winning submission will get a $1 million prize -- could go before the Port Authority’s commissioners in September, he said. But lawmakers who last year toured the facility to see its problems up close really wanted to know how long it will take to build the new terminal. Initial projections centered on 10 years, but Muriello said that’s something that will ultimately depend on what the winning concept looks like and what location is eventually selected.

The agency’s commissioners have already said they prefer a site near the current bus terminal, but real estate in that area of Manhattan is expensive and in an already established neighborhood residents may resist the construction of a new terminal.

“That’s one of the questions that we don’t have all of the answers to right now,” Muriello said.

Time is also of the essence as leaders in New Jersey are anxious to see the state benefit from what’s become a booming economic recovery in New York. Nearly nine out of every 10 new jobs created in the region over the past decade have been based in New York City, according to a presentation made by Tom Wright, president of the Regional Plan Association.

“We don’t think that this is going to change anytime soon” Wright said.

And he said both states have something at stake by keeping the infrastructure up to date to handle the economic growth.

In addition to the expanded capacity that the new bus terminal would allow, up to 337,000 trips, the Gateway project is also projected to result in a doubling of rail capacity, which right now sees roughly 160,000 daily trips into Penn Station from New Jersey using New Jersey Transit trains.

John Degnan, the Port Authority’s chairman, assured lawmakers his goal is to see the bus-terminal project completed in as few as seven years. The goal is also to come in under a $10 billion cost projection.

Degnan, an appointee of Gov. Chris Christie’s, has drawn praise from lawmakers and transportation advocates in New Jersey for pushing for the new bus terminal. It was originally left off the 10-year capital plan that the agency approved in 2014, only to be added on later.

“I think that cannot be forgotten,” Martin Robins, director emeritus of Rutgers University’s Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center, said of Degnan’s efforts

Speaking to reporters during a break in the hearing yesterday, Degnan said the Port Authority is also now in the process of redrafting its 10-year capital plan, with a series of public hearings now scheduled for this summer.

“We want to make sure there is ample time for public input,” Degnan said.

Not taking the time to collect adequate public comment is one of the issues the agency had been criticized for in the past, including in the wake of a series of toll and fare hikes that were approved with little public input in 2011.

And by coincidence, the Senate Legislative Oversight hearing yesterday came just a day after Christie issued a conditional veto of legislation seeking to reform the agency in the wake of the lane closures, which tied up traffic for several days in Fort Lee in 2013 as Christie allies allegedly carried out a political retribution plot against the borough’s mayor.

The chairman of the panel, Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen), sponsored the reform legislation and said he’s now hoping the Legislature adopts Christie’s recommendations. That would ensure the agency has the proper safeguards in place as it pursues costly projects like the Gateway tunnel and the new bus terminal, Gordon said.

And despite Christie’s removal of a requirement for beefed-up legislative oversight, new rules related to management, ethics, real-estate, and several other areas would go into effect if lawmakers at some point concur with the governor’s changes.

That’s because Christie’s veto served to sync up the legislation with a version that has already been passed by lawmakers and signed into law by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. And that step is important because any changes related to the Port Authority’s governance have to be approved by the governors and legislatures in each state.

“These are good things that should be in statute form,” Gordon said.

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