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What’s the Plan for PATH Service to Newark Liberty Airport?

With $57 million in preliminary spending approved, where is the money going, and what’s the big picture?

path train
Credit: WNYC

The Port Authority is moving forward with one of its major New Jersey capital projects, a $1.7 billion plan to extend PATH train service from lower Manhattan to Newark Liberty Airport.

The bistate agency’s commissioners voted during a meeting last week to authorize $57 million in spending on preliminary design work and an environmental study of the proposal, which would take a PATH line that currently ends at Penn Station in Newark a few miles southwest to the airport.

The project also calls for the building of a new PATH station in Newark’s South Ward, a feature that city officials are viewing as a key for generating new economic development.

But Port Authority officials have also been pitching the extension of PATH service to Newark airport as a potential benefit for some of the region’s weary trans-Hudson commuters. The project will allow for a new park-and-ride facility to be built in Newark, a feature that would provide residents in communities in surrounding counties like Essex and Union another way to get into Manhattan. And that element of the project has taken on a new importance in recent weeks thanks to a recent budget proposal put forward by President Donald Trump that is causing many to question the federal government’s commitment to funding a planned replacement of trans-Hudson rail tunnels shared by Amtrak and NJ Transit that are already more than a century old.

Right now, the Port Authority operates direct PATH service between World Trade Center in lower Manhattan and Penn Station in Newark, with stops in Harrison and Jersey City, and connections to Hoboken and parts of Manhattan. The roughly 2.4-mile extension would link the PATH to a station at the airport where another line takes riders to the nearby terminals. The new PATH station would be built in Newark’s Dayton Street neighborhood as part of the project.

The PATH Plan

The Newark airport extension — and the $1.7 billion in funds needed to complete it — were included in the 10-year, $32 billion capital plan that was approved by the Port Authority’s commissioners earlier this year. The $57 million in funding that was authorized by the commissioners during the meeting last week will allow the agency to assess projected ridership and costs, and it will also cover studies of the potential economic and environmental impacts of the project. Current plans call for construction to begin in 2020, and for the project to be completed by 2026.

“This project improves transportation access to Newark Airport while extending PATH’s trans-Hudson network in Newark,” said Port Authority executive director Pat Foye, after the $57 million in agency funds were approved by the commissioners last Thursday.

Opening Newark’s South Ward

Newark officials offered strong support for the project during a series of public hearings that the agency held earlier this year before the capital plan won final approval. They said it would open up economic development in the South Ward, which unlike other parts of the city, has little to no transportation options.

“Mass transportation is critical to the economy of our state and expanding the PATH to Newark airport will have a direct positive impact on the city and the region,” state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark) said last week after the Port Authority’s commissioners voted to advance the planning process.

“I applaud New Jersey’s Port Authority commissioners for taking this vital step in the expansion of PATH,” Ruiz said. “This approval is a major step forward.”

But the Port Authority’s approval of the project’s planning funds also comes several weeks after the Trump administration released its preliminary federal budget outline, which calls for a scaling back of spending from the “New Starts”” grant program. Under a finance plan that was hammered out by state and federal officials before Trump took office earlier this year, that grant program was to help pay for the more than $20 billion estimated cost of the Gateway project, which calls for the replacement of Amtrak’s existing trans-Hudson rail tunnels and other important mass-transit infrastructure.

Troubled tunnels

The tunnels, which are used by NJ Transit to help shuttle thousands of commuters into New York City on a daily basis, are more than 100 years old and are nearing the end of their expected life span. But they were also heavily damaged by 2012’s superstorm Sandy, and transportation advocates fear they could break down at any time, something that could pose major problems for the region’s commuters. A series of recent derailments and other problems at New York’s Penn Station has offered a glimpse of what commuting conditions could be like if just one of the tunnels has to be taken out of service before the Gateway project is completed.

As the Port Authority’s capital plan came together earlier this year, some transportation advocates criticized the agency for prioritizing full funding of the PATH extension at the same time it was providing only partial funding for a long-planned replacement of the agency’s midtown Manhattan bus terminal. Some of the Port Authority’s commissioners also questioned why the project was included in the capital plan before a full study of its potential ridership had been conducted.

But Port Authority leaders said extending PATH service to the airport would benefit New Jersey commuters by providing them with a new way to cross the Hudson River into New York. The envisioned park-and-ride facility would mean commuters coming in from Route 78 and other nearby roadways could drive to the new facility, and then take PATH directly to the World Trade Center.

“The Port Authority is committed to making critical investments in a transportation network that supports regional growth and meets the demands of the millions of people who live, work, and visit the region,” said Port Authority Chairman John Degnan, who is one of the board’s New Jersey representatives.

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