The New Jersey state senators leading a series of hearings on Port Authority reform and capital-planning priorities got a chance to see the bi-state agency’s flagship bus terminal up close yesterday – and it wasn’t necessarily pretty.
After taking a tour of the multi-level facility built more than six decades ago that saw them walk past long lines of commuters – and at one point dodging pigeons flying swiftly through the third-level concourse – Sens. Loretta Weinberg and Robert Gordon, (both D-Bergen), and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) all declared the time has come to replace the aging terminal.
“We have a Third World transportation system,” Sweeney said.
“We consider it cruel and unusual punishment,” added Gordon.
The tour, held at the start of the evening rush hour, came as the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee has been in the midst of a series of lengthy hearings on how best to reform the Port Authority in the wake of the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal known as “Bridgegate.”
But the hearings are also looking at the priorities of the Port Authority itself, making the case that projects related to economic development have distracted the agency from its core regional transportation mission.
Gordon, chairman of the oversight panel, called the bus terminal, located at Eighth Avenue and West 42nd Street, and the planned Gateway Hudson River rail tunnel project “the most critical infrastructure projects in the country.”
“Unless we make these investments we’re just not going to have an economic future,” he said.
In addition to ducking pigeons, the senators were also interrupted at one point during their tour by a New Jersey commuter who was eager to vent.
“I’ve been coming here for 20 years. This building hasn’t changed in 20 years,” said Sheila Powers of Marlboro. Adding to the insult is the $326 she pays each month to commute to her job, she said.
“It’s really just barbaric treatment,” she said.
For several years, the Port Authority has been studying what should be done about its bus terminal, which handles more than 100,000 commuters coming into Manhattan from New Jersey each day. The number of people using the bus terminal on a daily basis swells to over 230,000 when travelers from other states are included, and ridership projections call for a 50 percent increase by 2040.
A number of options were discussed during a meeting of the Port Authority’s Board of Commissioners last month, but it ended without the panel’s leadership agreeing on which direction to take. Calls for more deliberation and more studies were voiced by some commissioners from New York, given that the project will cost roughly $10 billion and take an estimated 10 years to complete.
The issue could come up again during the board’s meeting later this month, but Weinberg said there have already been enough consultants hired and studies conducted. She made the case yesterday that’s it’s now time for action, saying the timing is critical since a new 10-year capital plan is scheduled to be released by the Port Authority in December.
“The idea that we need more consultants and studies and more, whatever, seems to be a great big stall,” she said.
The Port Authority, in response to a wave of commuter complaints in recent years about a notoriously leaky roof, substandard bathrooms and poor climate control, last year approved $90 million in spending on “quality of life” improvements. And, last month, some 40 gates at the terminal were reassigned to help ease the congestion and long lines that have become a hallmark of the facility.
But all of those changes are viewed as temporary fixes.
Dennis Martin, the vice president and general manager of bus operations for New Jersey Transit, also attended the tour yesterday and made the case for a terminal-replacement option that would see the Port Authority build a brand-new facility west of Ninth Avenue.
Under that option, construction could occur without interrupting service at the existing terminal, Martin said. The Port Authority could also eventually recoup funding by selling the Eighth Avenue site, which would be a valuable piece of real estate in midtown Manhattan despite the facility’s current condition.
The new terminal, meanwhile, could also handle the expected rise in ridership expected by 2040, which could hopefully ease long backups that right now often result in bus lines snaking all the way into the Lincoln Tunnel.
Martin said that option would address all of the agency’s concerns.
“We’re at capacity now,” he said.
Some of that capacity was demonstrated when the lawmakers were offered a behind-the-scenes glimpse at video monitors inside the Port Authority’s General Manager’s Office on the main level. Diannae Ehler, the general manager of the bus terminal for the Port Authority, showed bus traffic backing up as the vehicles approached the facility from the Lincoln Tunnel.
“When it gets to be more than a minute, a minute and a half, two minutes, then we have a problem,” she said.
The New Jersey lawmakers, meanwhile, are moving ahead with their planned hearings on Port Authority reform and capital-planning priorities. The committee heard from transportation experts, advocates and others during two sessions held in Trenton in recent weeks.
The panel’s work has included holding up a reform bill already passed by lawmakers in New York.
A reform proposal by the New Jersey lawmakers features changes that Democrats who control the Legislature in New Jersey have advanced in the wake of the controversial 2013 George Washington Bridge lane closures, which federal prosecutors say were ordered by two Port Authority officials with close ties to Gov. Chris Christie — and by a member of Christie’s inner circle in Trenton — to punish the mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie’s 2013 re-election campaign.
Christie has strongly denied any prior knowledge or involvement in the alleged plot.
Since the Port Authority is a bi-state agency, identical versions of any reform legislation must be adopted by lawmakers in both states and then signed into law by Christie and by Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York.
The New Jersey senators, meanwhile, are planning to hold hearings in North Jersey in the next few weeks to give commuters a chance to add their input.
At the end of yesterday’s tour, Sweeney didn’t hold back, saying the point is really to force the Port Authority to meet the needs of its constituents.
“This is a priority,” he said.