As the Port Authority starts to solicit public comment on a 10-year capital plan that recently won unanimous support from the bistate agency’s commissioners, state lawmakers are beginning to look more closely at exactly how the long-term plan would impact New Jersey commuters.
So far, they don’t like much of what they’re seeing.
During a legislative hearing in Trenton that was convened yesterday to dig deeper into the more than $30 billion capital plan that was put forward by the Port Authority earlier this month, lawmakers questioned high-ranking agency officials about a proposed new Port Authority Bus Terminal — with a possible completion date of 2030 or beyond. Demand at the current 1950s-era facility is projected to increase by 10 percent by 2020, and up to 50 percent by 2040.
The lawmakers also quizzed Port Authority officials about a planned extension of the PATH rail line to Newark Airport that uses up money that could otherwise go to the bus terminal. It now looks like the proposed two-mile extension will not include a stop in Newark’s South Ward that local leaders have long coveted as an economic-development opportunity.
By the end of the hearing, the chairman of the panel raised a series of concerns about both projects, and urged the Port Authority’s commissioners to postpone a vote to grant final approval to the capital plan scheduled for February 16.
“These are huge numbers and the downside of making a mistake is great,” said Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen). “These are decisions that are critical to the economic future of New Jersey and the entire region.”
“I’d like them to just hold off on the vote scheduled for February 16 and have a serious conversation with the experts there and reassign priorities,” he said.
The Port Authority’s commissioners voted unanimously on January 5 in support of the current draft of the 10-year, $32 billion capital plan, and the agency released a detailed version of the plan to the public about a week later. It was considered by officials from both New York and New Jersey to be the best deal that could be struck between the factions from each state, which have clashed in recent years over what should be the agency’s top priorities.
While the capital-plan funds airport projects considered a high priority by New York officials, it also includes $3.5 billion for the bus-terminal replacement project, which is something New Jersey officials have emphasized. Another $2.7 billion is budgeted for the federal government’s Gateway commuter-rail tunnel project, and $1.7 billion is set aside to extend PATH-train service from lower Manhattan to Newark Liberty International Airport.
But Gordon and the other lawmakers yesterday pressed agency officials to explain why the bus-terminal replacement — which is expected to cost between $7.5 billion and $10 — is only being partially funded during the life of the proposed 10-year plan.
Steven Plate, the agency’s chief of major capital projects, said the latest timeline calls for public outreach, planning, engineering, and environmental reviews to take up the next few years heading into 2021. He also noted that a final location for the new terminal hasn’t been picked as agency officials are still working with community leaders in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen.
“At this point, the biggest hurdle right now is to get us all in agreement on where we’re building and what we’re building,” Plate said.
But lawmakers said, given the agency’s two-year delay in completing a major renovation of the Port Authority’s George Washington Bridge Bus Station, that they have a hard time putting much faith in the prediction that construction could start in 2021. They also raised concerns that completion of the new bus terminal could now push into the 2030s. The Gateway project won’t be completed until at least 2030, and federal officials have raised concerns about the existing tunnels lasting that long, leading many to hope the bus-terminal replacement could be completed far sooner to serve as a backup option for New Jersey commuters.
Gateway is a $24 billion public-transit project that calls for the construction of two new rail tubes under the Hudson River connecting New Jersey with midtown Manhattan, as well as several other major upgrades to the region’s transportation infrastructure, all to increase capacity for New Jersey Transit and Amtrak.
From a safety perspective, agency officials have also previously said concrete slabs at the existing bus terminal will last at most another two decades.
“I guess you’re not making us all feel comfortable that we’re actually going to get a new bus terminal some time in the foreseeable future,” said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen).
Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) also raised concerns that the agency is still considering building the new bus terminal at the current location at Eighth Avenue and 42nd Street rather than putting up an entirely new facility somewhere nearby.
“If we’re going to sit around until 2021, we’re never going to see this project in our lifetime. That’s my frustration,” Sarlo said.
And while construction on the replacement bus terminal would be delayed until at least 2021, the capital plan envisions construction beginning in 2020 on the PATH extension to Newark airport. The project would open in 2026, costing an estimated $1.7 billion, Plate said. Right now, the PATH line stops about two miles away at Newark Penn Station.
But Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) questioned why a midway stop in the planned PATH extension that was on the drawing board had not made it into the final draft. Local officials viewed that stop as a key economic-development opportunity since right now the neighborhood is cut off from mass transit.
“There appears to be a better benefit for New Jersey residents, long-term, if we include a South Ward stop. I don’t know how great the benefit is of doing this all at the airport, if not more for the folks in New York, than us here in New Jersey,” Ruiz said.
Plate said the extension plan also includes a parking garage at the airport that commuters from surrounding counties like Morris, Somerset, and Union could use to take a one-seat ride to Wall Street and other locations in lower Manhattan. Sen. Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union) also pointed to that element of the plan as a new trans-Hudson commuting option.
But Gordon and Weinberg questioned why precise ridership projections have not been released for the project even as it has been given priority in the 10-year capital plan. Projections are also not yet available for a similar proposed rail link to LaGuardia Airport in Queens that would cost an estimated $1.5 billion.
“We should have that in short order, senator, I’m happy to have a working meeting with you or your staff,” Plate said to Weinberg.
Janna Chernetz, the New Jersey policy analyst for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, testified later during the hearing. She called some of the answers provided by the Port Authority’s officials “extremely alarming.” She also suggested the two airport-rail projects could be delayed to free up another $3.2 billion for the bus-terminal replacement.
“We urge you to continue to put the pressure on the Port Authority,” Chernetz said. “We need to continue to be steadfast in ensuring the completion of this project over the course of the 2017-2026 capital plan.”
The Port Authority has already scheduled two public hearings on its overall capital plan, with the first set for January 31 in Manhattan, and a second scheduled for February 7 in Jersey City. Both meetings will be held from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Public comments are also being collected via email and can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org
But Gordon said the February 16 meeting should be postponed at least a month “so we can have a better understanding of these projects.”