PA Board Gives NJ Lawmakers, Advocates Some of What They Wanted

Commissioners approve $30 billion capital-spending plan, but only set aside $3.5 billion for bus terminal, not enough to carry project to completion

Port Authority board members listening to staff present the agency's latest 10-year capital plan during a public meeting on Thursday afternoon
The Port Authority’s board of commissioners voted yesterday to advance a nearly $30 billion, 10-year capital-spending plan that includes a major commitment to a new midtown Manhattan bus terminal.

While the $3.5 billion that’s now earmarked for the facility falls short of what New Jersey lawmakers and transportation advocates had been hoping to see, it represents the best deal that chairman John Degnan of New Jersey could strike with his New York counterparts at the bistate agency. It’s also likely to be enough money to make it extremely difficult for future agency leaders to pull back on a long-term project that’s been viewed for years as a top priority by Degnan and other New Jersey officials.

The funding for the new bus terminal that’s included in the agency’s capital-spending plan also marks a major step forward for the terminal-replacement project after its future was put in doubt on several occasions over the past several months by New York officials. The two states clashed openly over whether the facility should stay in Manhattan or terminate on the New Jersey side of the Hudson, requiring commuters to either take a train or a second bus into the city. The other issues are New York objectives and agency priorities, like a new commuter-rail tunnel and airport upgrades.

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Now, under the draft of the spending plan approved by the Port Authority’s board during a public meeting in Manhattan yesterday, more than 10 percent of the capital budget will be earmarked for the bus-terminal replacement project, with another $370 million set aside to upgrade the agency’s existing midtown Manhattan bus facility until the new terminal can be built. Upgrades, however, are not enough since traffic projections show that the bus terminal has already outgrown its space, a problem that will only become worse in the next 10 years.

The new capital plan also includes major commitments to two other projects that are designed to make it easier for New Jersey commuters to reach Manhattan; $2.7 billion is budgeted for the planned Gateway rail-tunnel project, and another $1.7 billion is set aside to extend PATH-train service from lower Manhattan to Newark Liberty International Airport. Port Authority officials also stressed yesterday that right now there are no plans to increase tolls or fares to support the projected capital spending beyond those that are already scheduled to go into effect to keep pace with inflation.

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New Jersey lawmakers and transportation advocates had been hoping for at least $6 billion in funding for the bus-terminal replacement project in the new capital plan, and even as yesterday’s vote was in many ways a victory following last year’s public spats with New York officials, after the meeting they raised new questions about the Port Authority’s financial assumptions. The lawmakers also announced that even though the Port Authority has scheduled two public hearings on the draft capital plan that will be held over the next several weeks on each side of the Hudson River, they will convene their own set of hearings to make sure the entire region’s transportation needs are fully evaluated as the agency’s capital plan advances toward final approval next month.

“It is critical that the capital plan be based upon the transportation needs of the entire region, rather than political horse-trading of ‘New York’ or ‘New Jersey’ projects,” said Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen).

Though there’s been a great deal of debate about several issues surrounding the proposed bus-terminal replacement, no one has argued that the status quo at the 1950s-era facility located at Eighth Avenue and West 42nd Street in Manhattan should be maintained.

The bus terminal has been handling an overcapacity commuter crowd on a daily basis for several 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 a concern is the integrity of 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, for another two decades.

Some projections for the bus terminal’s replacement have put the price tag as high as $10 billion, but Port Authority Chairman John Degnan told NJ Spotlight in a recent interview that he believes it can be done for $6 billion to $8 billion. Degnan was pushing for at least $3.5 billion to be budgeted for the replacement project in the new capital plan, an amount that he suggested yesterday was equal with what the agency could realistically spend over the next decade as the project moves ahead.

“I am convinced if we spend $3.5 billion, this Port Authority will find a way to finish it,” said Degnan, an appointee of Gov. Chris Christie.

“I’m interested now in hearing the public’s input,” Degnan said.

Commissioner Rich Bagger, another Christie appointee, also stressed the value of the other capital projects that are designed to boost trans-Hudson commuter capacity, citing Gateway and the PATH extension as major steps forward for an agency that in the past has been criticized for straying too far from its core mission of facilitating regional transportation.

“We have some potentially historic projects,” Bagger said.

But not everyone was enamored with the full list of projects that will be funded if the capital plan receives final approval during a meeting that right now is scheduled to be held on February 16. More than $3 billion will go to improvements planned for airports in New York, a total that includes funding for a rail link for LaGuardia Airport in Queens. The airport projects have been identified as a top priority of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo even as they’ve faced criticism from officials in New Jersey.

Kenneth Lipper, a board member appointed by Cuomo, attempted to amend the proposed capital plan yesterday to strip out the funding for the LaGuardia link and also the PATH extension to Newark Liberty. He suggested ridership estimates don’t justify the overall spending that will be needed both to build and to operate the new services.

“I was asked to vote for this because it’s part of a grand compromise,” Lipper said. “I can’t accept the notion that I have to compromise on $4 billion of the taxpayers’ money.”

After the other commissioners voted down his amendment, Lipper ultimately voted in favor of advancing the capital plan to begin the public-hearing process. Under the agency’s current plans, an initial public hearing will be held on January 31 in Manhattan, and a second hearing is scheduled for February 7 in Jersey City. Both meetings will be held from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.

The New Jersey Senate Legislative Oversight Committee, meanwhile, is also planning to convene a hearing on the Port Authority’s capital-spending goals on January 17 at the State House in Trenton. A second hearing has been scheduled for January 31 in North Jersey, though a specific location has yet to be announced.

Gordon and Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) attended the Port Authority meeting yesterday to stress the need for prioritizing the bus-terminal replacement.

“The current terminal is rundown, overcrowded, depressing, and inadequate,” said Weinberg, who was one of several lawmakers who took a tour of the facility in 2015.

“Time’s-a-wastin’ gentlemen,” she told the all-male board.

A statement issued later by Weinberg and several other New Jersey senators also promised that the upcoming hearings would look more closely at the Port Authority’s financial planning, including assumptions that federal aid will be available to support the bus-terminal replacement and other capital projects.

“We don’t want to see any of these important infrastructure improvements delayed for another decade because of poor financial forecasting,” said Sen. Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union.