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Could Lack of Neighborhood Input Stall Progress on New Port Authority Terminal?

Port Authority officials pledge to listen to neighborhood representatives, but unsympathetic to calls to move site to Jersey side of Hudson

New Jersey lawmakers celebrated earlier this year when the Port Authority finally took action to advance one of the state’s top transportation goals — replacing the agency’s aging Midtown Manhattan bus terminal. But New York officials are now saying “not so fast” and are threatening to block the project, citing concerns about a lack of neighborhood input in the early stages of planning.

At issue is whether the new terminal will be located in the nearby neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen, where the current building stands, or somewhere else — even on the New Jersey side of the river, which state officials strenuously object to, since it would not allow for a one-seat ride into Manhattan.

Representatives of the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood where the proposed new bus terminal will be located backed out of a meeting with the Port Authority last week, but they have complained loudly that that they were not properly consulted. They sent an angry letter to the bistate agency’s leaders that questioned the legitimacy of an ongoing design competition for the new facility.

Not to be outdone, a large group of elected officials from New Jersey have also joined the fray, urging the agency in its own letter last week to keep the long-delayed project on track. They cited already overburdened commuter trains and Manhattan’s notorious traffic-choked streets as reasons for urgency and also pushed back against any notion that the new terminal not be located in the same neighborhood as the current facility.

All of the recent posturing by the officials on both sides of the river has demonstrated the key test that’s now facing the Port Authority, whose commissioners are appointed by the two governors. Can the agency successfully balance the needs of New Jersey commuters who have long been frustrated with an outdated and overcapacity bus terminal with the concerns of a Manhattan neighborhood where the new facility could affect the local environment, tenants’ rights, and nearby historic sites? So far, Port Authority leaders have pledged to increase cooperation with representatives of the neighborhood, but they have also not offered to slow down the planning process.

The push to do something about the existing 1950s-era bus terminal located at Eighth Avenue and West 42nd Street has lingered at the Port Authority for several years. The facility has been handling an over-capacity commuter crowd for the past 50 years, and the latest ridership projections estimate the current load of 232,000 daily riders, including about 110,000 from New Jersey, will increase by roughly 50 percent over the next 25 years.

But it wasn’t until earlier this year that the Port Authority’s board voted to include the bus-terminal replacement project, which could cost as much as $10 billion and take 10 years to build, in its long-term capital plan. That action in March also solidified the bistate agency’s intention to keep the facility on the west side of Manhattan instead of exploring possible sites in New Jersey, as some agency commissioners from New York had suggested.

The international design competition was also launched in March, and a $1 million prize was announced for the winning entry, which will be selected by an independent jury of industry experts later this year. Though Port Authority commissioners have said they favor finding a location for the new bus terminal near the existing facility, they also said during a meeting in Fair Lawn that was held in May that using the same location would remain an option as the design-competition process plays out.

But it’s the location of the new bus terminal that is the key concern for the elected officials in New York, where opponents of the project have warned they have been successful in blocking major projects before — a decade ago the neighborhood organized to stop a proposed football stadium.

Thus far, New York officials have not appeared conciliatory. A group that included U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said they would not participate in a meeting on the bus terminal that the Port Authority planned to hold last week because it would “give an aura of legitimacy to this prejudicial process.”

“We demand the Port Authority halt the (design) competition and restart this process as it should have been: by seeking out and fully examining all terminal replacement alternatives and how each fits into the area’s larger transportation network for the long-term future,” the officials wrote in a letter sent to the Port Authority last week.

“We are not suggesting that the current bus terminal should stay as is, or that a replacement terminal should not be built at least in part in Manhattan,” the letter went on to say. “However, many foundational questions remain unanswered about what will be involved in rebuilding the terminal — both in the interim accommodations and final results.”

The letter drew a response from Port Authority Chairman John Degnan, an appointee of Gov. Chris Christie, and Vice Chairman Steven Cohen, an appointee of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. In their letter, which the Port Authority provided to NJ Spotlight on Friday, the two men invited the elected officials to set up meetings with Port Authority staff and to put forward their own bus-terminal proposal. They also offered to assemble smaller working groups to address community concerns going forward.

“We all recognize that a new bus terminal must be built, that the practical reality is that it must be built in Manhattan and that it must be built to minimize community impacts and concerns, including yours and those of your constituents,” the letter from Degnan and Cohen said.

The letter issued by the New Jersey elected officials to Port Authority leaders last week also stressed the need for the planning process to move forward. It was signed by New Jersey’s two U.S. senators, Cory Booker and Robert Menendez, both Democrats, and state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union), among other elected officials.

“We cannot consider any plan that reduces direct mass-transit access to Manhattan as it would force tens of thousands of commuters back into their cars, increasing traffic congestion and delays at Port Authority bridges and tunnels, New Jersey highways, and Manhattan city streets that are already gridlocked,” the letter said.

“We believe a juried panel of independent experts offers the best opportunity to develop a plan that meets the region’s transportation needs without undue outside influence; we encourage you and the Port Authority board to continue the design competition that is underway,” the letter went on to say.

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