For the last several years in the wake of the high-profile Bridgegate scandal, officials at the Port Authority have been under pressure to put aside bistate political rivalries and refocus on the agency’s core transportation mission.
But now, officials from New Jersey and New York are once again fighting with each other, putting the future of the Port Authority bus terminal — and more importantly, the capital funding needed to jumpstart its replacement — back into dispute as 2016 is coming to an end.
For most of the year it appeared that the two states were trying to reconcile differences amicably, as the Port Authority committed to funding a long-sought replacement of the agency’s aging and over-capacity flagship bus terminal, and also backed keeping the facility in Manhattan instead of moving it to New Jersey, as some in New York have suggested.
Yet now, New York officials are balking and do not want the bus terminal to land high on a priority list for capital funding. Leading the opposition from New York is U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler, an influential Democrat who represents the west side of Manhattan and also serves on the important House transportation committee. A letter penned recently by Nadler and other elected officials attacked Port Authority Chairman John Degnan of New Jersey personally as the bus-terminal issue has heated up again.
That’s put lawmakers from New Jersey, who have for several years been advocating for the bus terminal’s replacement, back on high alert since the agency’s capital resources are also needed to help fund a new trans-Hudson commuter-rail tunnel and pay for upgrades at airports that are also run by the Port Authority. They fear a failure by the Port Authority to make a major commitment to the bus terminal’s replacement in the agency’s next 10-year capital plan, due in early 2017, could mean significant progress on the project will be delayed until well into the 2030s —or even permanently.
“It’s just time to move forward,” said Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) in a recent interview with NJ Spotlight. “If there’s not enough money to start and finish this thing it will be cannibalized and the bus terminal will never get built.”
As a matter of transportation policy, there seems to be little debate about the need to replace the 1950s-era bus terminal located at Eighth Avenue and West 42nd Street in Manhattan. The facility has been handling an over-capacity commuter crowd for decades, 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.
Also emerging as a concern are the concrete slabs that allow buses to navigate above the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood to reach the multilevel bus terminal’s many gates. The structure itself is difficult for newer, more fuel-efficient buses to navigate and, according to the agency’s estimates, the slabs can last, at most, another two decades.
Although some estimates for the bus terminal’s replacement have put the price tag as high as $10 billion, Degnan said in an interview with NJ Spotlight that he believes it can be done for $6 billion-$8 billion. Degnan is pushing for at least $3.5 billion to be budgeted for the replacement terminal in the agency’s next 10-year capital plan.
“We need a new bus terminal clearly completed in no less than 15 years,” said Degnan, who was appointed by Gov. Chris Christie to lead the agency in 2014 following the Bridgegate scandal.
But Sweeney is calling for much greater funding for the bus terminal in the next capital plan. He wants at least $6 billion to be set aside — enough, Sweeney said, to keep the replacement on schedule to be largely completed during the 10-year window. “If it’s less than half the money then they’re never going to build it,” he said.
So far, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s appointees at the Port Authority — the agency is run by the political appointees of both Christie, a Republican, and Cuomo, a Democrat — have yet to commit publicly to either amount of funding for the new bus terminal, and that’s fueling concerns that it’s Cuomo himself who is opposed to spending that much on the project.
Nadler, the Manhattan congressman, and other elected officials from New York also sent the letter earlier this month to Degnan and Port Authority Vice Chair Steven Cohen, a Cuomo appointee, that criticized Degnan personally and accused him of “putting his personal priorities above the public interest and good governance.”
The letter referred to “political and personal reasons” that may be behind Degnan’s strong support for the bus terminal’s replacement, something many in New York have linked to the New Jersey Senate’s decision earlier this year to approve Christie’s nomination of Degnan’s son for the position of State Comptroller.
“We believe that the chairman should recuse himself from determining the site, design or features of the new bus terminal,” the letter said.
Asked to respond, Degnan said his advocacy for a new bus terminal goes back to his first day on the job at the Port Authority when he took a bus from New Jersey to the agency’s office in Manhattan. That was long before the Senate approved his son’s nomination earlier this year.
“First of all, I wouldn’t do it,” Degnan said. “Secondly, it doesn’t make any sense.”
Sweeney and other New Jersey lawmakers, including Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union), have also given Degnan an unequivocal vote of confidence, sending their own letter to the Port Authority that called the complaints about possible political interference “laughable.” That letter also said they’re still committed to working together with New York to get the project done.
“I think what we’re hoping is we can find some way of finding some kind of compromise,” said New Jersey Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen).
Also a concern is whether the bus terminal is still being viewed by the political appointees as a project that would predominantly benefit New Jersey instead of the entire region. Perceiving it as just a New Jersey project would mean the agency is still following a long-held tradition of labeling its capital projects as individual priorities for just one of the states instead of for both.
New Jersey lawmakers are trying to make the case that a new bus terminal would not just be an asset for New Jersey commuters. The terminal takes in buses from across the region, including New York, and though more than 100,000 commuters from New Jersey use the terminal each day, most do so to get to jobs in New York, meaning it’s New York that receives their hefty income-tax payments.
New York would also benefit from a replacement bus terminal because it would be New York construction workers who would build it. “We have a regional economy, and New York is dependent on resources and people coming in from New Jersey, and vice versa,” Gordon said.
It was fighting between the two states that drew unwanted attention earlier this year during the federal trial of two close Christie allies charged with corruption in the wake of the Bridgegate scandal. Christie’s allies were found guilty of realigning several eastbound approach lanes at the George Washington Bridge to cause massive traffic jams as part of a plot to punish Fort Lee’s mayor after he declined to endorse Christie’s 2013 reelection campaign. But testimony during the trial also showed how factions from the two states were in bitter conflict, and how New York officials also at one point thought they could seize on the scandal to gain the upper hand.
Yet earlier this fall, the bistate rivalries seemed to have been put aside, first as the Port Authority voted to advance the bus terminal’s replacement in Manhattan, and later as Gordon and other New Jersey officials worked with their counterparts in New York to address several concerns about the planning process that were raised by elected officials who represent the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood.
They all met in October with Degnan, and appeared to be on the same page before things unraveled earlier this month, Gordon said.