Bipartisan Group of NJ Lawmakers Blasts NY Pols Over Bus Terminal

Joe Tyrrell | December 1, 2016 | Transportation
Democrats and Republicans present united front, insisting that a replacement for the current “Third-World” terminal will be built as planned

Credit: WNYC/Kate Hinds
Sen. Bob Gordon, Sen. Loretta Weinberg, Commissioner Pat Schuber, Sen. Steve Sweeney, Sen. Paul Sarlo, Sen. Tom Keane Jr., and Sen. Joe Kyrillos at a press conference in the Port Authority Bus Terminal
New Jersey officials are standing firm when it comes to building a bus terminal on Manhattan’s West Side, and they are challenging New York officials to find a way around them in order for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to once again put New York’s priorities ahead of New Jersey’s. The united front of Democratic and Republican legislative leaders are enraged that an earlier deal over funding and timing to replace the “Third World” bus terminal operated by the Port Authority was abruptly scrapped by New York.

Representatives of the two states had agreed to include a new facility in the Port Authority’s 10-year capital plan, but in recent days, New York officials withdrew their support and attacked the bistate agency’s chairman, John Degnan, who shepherded it.

Sending messages via media in their home states, the two sides have offered competing narratives about the process and how it unraveled. Yesterday, New Jerseyans highlighted the shortcomings of the existing terminal. But they also blasted what state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) called “manipulation, intimidation and bullying” by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Standing before a bank of TV cameras, with a rank of political colleagues behind him, state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), said the 66-year-old terminal counts “serious structural problems” among its many deficiencies.

“It’s dirty, overcrowded and completely incapable of handling the expected increase in commuter traffic in the immediate future,” Sweeney said. “It is what you’d expect to see in a Third World country, not in the center of the nation’s most important transportation hub.”

Sweeney’s Republican counterpart, Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union), said replacing the terminal is “critical for our transportation needs and essential to our economic future.”

Even Gov. Chris Christie, though not among the participants, sounded a positive note. The governor “fully supports and has always supported the construction of a new Port Authority bus terminal,” a spokesman said.

Weinberg acknowledged New York officials led by U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) made a “well-founded” complaint in August “that they had not had much input” into planning the new facility. But she added that Degnan, the Port Authority board, and New Jersey promptly accommodated them.

Working groups from the two states met in September and negotiated a framework for the capital budget that incorporated funding for two big-ticket items, the new bus terminal and the improvements and redevelopment at LaGuardia Airport that Cuomo sought.

Staff from the two sides continued to flesh out details, Weinberg said. She was discussing the progress with state Sen. Bob Gordon (D-Bergen) and Mark Magyar, policy director for state Senate Democrats, on November 15, when “out of the blue,” Nadler and fellow New York officials released a letter charging Degnan “skewed the process” and “appears to be continuing to pursue a replacement process that uses eminent domain.”

“We believe that the chairman should recuse himself from determining the site, design or features of the new bus terminal,” said the letter, whose signatories included Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and state legislators from the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, site of the existing terminal, and nearby areas.

Eminent domain allows governments to acquire property, even from unwilling sellers, ostensibly for public purposes. A new bus terminal squarely fits that definition, but Weinberg said the parties already agreed to rule that out.

“The Port Authority owns enough land in the city that there’s no need for eminent domain,” Weinberg said. “We all agreed to that, and in fact it was Congressman Nadler who wanted more flexible language that we could use it only if necessary.”

Nadler and other New York officials involved in the process did not respond to requests for comments yesterday. But Degnan, a Christie appointee, is New Jersey’s top official in the Port Authority bureaucracy and an attractive target if the subject is money. And both the projects topping the capital spending plan require lots of it.

The two states have engaged in a continual spat over calculating the costs of capital projects, sometimes played out in exchanges between Degnan and Patrick Foye, the authority’s executive director and top New York representative.

The Port Authority initially estimated the new terminal could cost $8 billion to $10 billion, though Degnan recently gave NJ Spotlight a $6 billion to $8 billion range. Cost estimates submitted in a design competition for the project were much further apart, $3.7 billion to $15.3 billion.

Meanwhile, the LaGuardia project includes a boutique hotel and retail development as well a terminal makeover, bringing the current estimated cost to about $5.6 billion.

Degnan and New Jersey officials have sharply rebuffed suggestions that he pushed the terminal improvements in exchange for the appointment of his son as state comptroller. Weinberg called it “scurrilous,” while Kean praised Degnan’s “steadfast commitment to upholding transparency in the decision-making process.”

Last week, Degnan asked the state ethics commission to determine whether he has any conflict, and whether he should have recused himself from voting on a March resolution where the Port Authority board unanimously backed the new bus terminal.

New Jersey legislators credited Degnan with getting the authority board to move belatedly on the project, which had been discussed without showing up in prior capital plans.

“As critical as this project is, it never even made it into their banged-up capital budgets until John Degnan came on board,” Weinberg said.

In September, after the board responded to grumblings from New York, Nadler said he was “thrilled” to announce “a new expanded planning process” for the project. The discussions would “fully examine the range of options… including an analysis of potential temporary and additional bus facilities in both states,” he said, adding his thanks to Degnan and Steve Cohen, the board vice chairman.

“I don’t know what they want,” Weinberg said of the New York objectors, who include Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and state legislators. “They came to a Port Authority meeting, we (New Jersey group) met with them, we signed a memorandum of understanding, everyone was in agreement.”

But as it stands, suggestions from the Cuomo administration that funding for the bus terminal be capped at $2 billion in the 10-year spending plan are “unacceptable,” Sweeney said. Insufficient funding to complete any of the proposed designs “guarantees the bus terminal can’t get even started until 2027,” he said.

Ironically, New Jersey Democrats expressed regret that Christie has not taken a more prominent role in the debate. But the Bridgegate scandal over artificially created traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge has left Christie without much leverage in Port Authority matters.

Two of his top aides were convicted of arranging the jams as political retaliation against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, based in part on testimony from Christie’s former personal representative to the Port Authority.

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