Port Authority’s Journey Begins with a Single Step – But It’s a Huge One for NJ

Agency approves new bus terminal, Hudson River tunnel, airport upgrade – now Garden State lawmakers say extra vigilance is key

The Port Authority bus terminal
Despite fears to the contrary, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey seems to share the vision that New Jersey lawmakers have for transportation in the northern part of the state, including building a new bus terminal in Manhattan – not across the river in New Jersey – and devoting funds for engineering work to advance the planned cross-Hudson Gateway tunnel project.

The Port Authority’s commissioners voted in favor of advancing those projects and also cleared the way for major airport improvements in both New York and New Jersey during a public meeting last week.

But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing left for state lawmakers to do when it comes to overseeing the Port Authority, a bi-state agency that’s still trying to repair its reputation in the wake of the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal known as Bridgegate.

Legislators — who’ve been leading efforts in recent years to get the Port Authority to commit to both the Gateway project and construction of a new bus terminal — say their mission now shifts to making sure those major projects stay on schedule and are designed with growing commuter demand in mind. The state Senate’s Legislative Oversight Committee will be meeting next month to begin that effort.

Also on the agenda for lawmakers going forward is getting to Gov. Chris Christie’s desk legislation that would bring broader reforms to the Port Authority itself. That push, they say, has become more important in the wake of the agency’s actions last week, which also included approving more than $5 billion in spending on proposed airport improvements in both New York and New Jersey.

“I would argue that with the prospect of perhaps $20 billion in major capital projects the need for oversight . . . becomes more important than ever,” said Sen. Robert Gordon, chairman of the Senate oversight panel, during an interview yesterday. Gordon (D-Bergen) was part of a bipartisan group of New Jersey lawmakers who attended the Port Authority’s board meeting last week.

Bus terminal is obsolete

Opened in 1950, the current bus terminal at Eighth Avenue and West 42nd Street has been operating beyond its designed capacity for the last 50 years. And the number of riders using the crowded facility on a daily basis is only expected to increase, from 230,000 to 330,000, within the next 25 years.

The board’s action last week means funds for the new bus terminal will be in the agency’s long-term capital plan. The agency earlier this month had already announced a design competition for the new facility.

Port Authority board Chairman John Degnan, who was appointed by Christie, called the bus-terminal project “a crucial investment in our region’s economic growth.”

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) was among the lawmakers who attended the board meeting last week. She helped lead public meetings in New Jersey to raise awareness about the worsening conditions inside the bus terminal.

In an interview yesterday, Weinberg called the vote “a very fulfilling moment,” especially in light of recent efforts by some New York commissioners to explore building the new facility in New Jersey. That would have lengthened commute times into Manhattan from New Jersey, and put even more strain on New Jersey Transit’s trains.

“It was a giant step forward,” Weinberg said.

But she also cautioned that the vote was only “a step.” That’s because lawmakers need to make sure the project, which could end up costing at least $10 billion and take 10 years to build, stays on schedule and can handle the projected increase in ridership, she said.

“Am I ready to declare victory and go home? No. Now the hard work starts,” Weinberg said.

To begin that process, the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee has invited officials from the Port Authority and other transportation experts to attend a hearing April 25 in Hackensack. An update on the status of the Gateway project will also be on the committee’s meeting agenda.

“I’ve learned enough about the Port Authority to know you need to remain vigilant until you cut the ribbon,” said Gordon, the chairman of the panel.

Deal reached on Gateway

Last year, officials in New Jersey and New York announced a breakthrough deal with the federal government to split the cost of the planned $20 billion Gateway project, which features other infrastructure improvements in addition to construction of two new rail tubes under the Hudson River. The goal is to accommodate commuter-rail demand that is expected to double by 2030, but also to allow for repairs to damage that was caused to the existing 105-year-old tubes by 2012’s superstorm Sandy.

Last year’s agreement on the Gateway project also involved giving the Port Authority a key role in its development, and the board voted last week to fund $70 million in initial engineering work, using $35 million of its own funds and $35 million in federal dollars.

The agency also voted during its meeting to authorize nearly $3 billion in spending to improve LaGuardia Airport, and another $2.3 billion to replace Terminal A at Newark Liberty International Airport.

Both Gordon and Weinberg said all of that spending should provide more incentive for lawmakers to send Christie a strong reform bill to ensure future Port Authority officials are spending money on core transportation priorities, and in a disciplined way.

Legislation they’re sponsoring has already cleared the Senate and could come up for a vote in the Assembly early next month.

But it’s not the same as a bill that has already passed both houses of the New York Legislature and has won approval from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. That’s a problem, since any changes to the Port Authority’s governance structure and rules must win approval from each state’s respective legislatures and governors.

Republicans in New Jersey, led by Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union) have called on Democrats here to pass the New York version of the bill and then work on making changes later on if they are deemed necessary. Christie, a Republican who has already vetoed an earlier version of the reform legislation, has also favored Kean’s approach.

But Gordon and Weinberg have held firm, arguing they may only get one chance to pass a bill that can win approval in both states.

One key difference between the two bills is that the New Jersey version would require Port Authority officials to regularly appear before lawmakers in both New York and New Jersey. It would also enhance legislative oversight of the agency’s capital-planning process.

Weinberg said those tougher rules are needed to make sure the Port Authority stays on track. She praised Degnan’s recent efforts as the agency’s chairman to fight for New Jersey priorities, but warned he won’t be leading the agency forever.

“That’s why legislative oversight is so important,” Weinberg said.