NJ Lawmakers Oppose PA Spending Plan if Bus Terminal Initiative Not Funded

Legislators on both sides of the aisle seem ready to stall vote on $32B capital plan unless it includes $70M for bus terminal planning effort

Senate President Stephen Sweeney speaks about the need to replace the Port Authority's midtown Manhattan bus terminal during a news conference in the State House yesterday. Sen Paul Sarlo is standing behind Sweeney.
With a vote on the Port Authority’s proposed $32 billion capital plan now just days away, New Jersey officials are applying more pressure on the bistate agency to prioritize the replacement of its aging midtown Manhattan bus terminal.

A bipartisan group of state senators said yesterday that the Port Authority commissioners who represent New Jersey should hold back their support for the agency’s proposed 10-year capital plan unless they get support from their New York counterparts for a $70 million planning initiative that’s considered crucial to putting the bus-terminal replacement on a fast track.

Right now, the capital plan only partially funds the replacement of the aging, overcapacity facility used on a daily basis by New Jersey commuters, and there are concerns that New York officials are trying to further stall construction of a bus terminal to free up more Port Authority funding for their own priorities.

The importance of the bus-terminal project was also emphasized yesterday by Phil Murphy, the early favorite in this year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary. Murphy came out strongly in favor of expediting bus-terminal construction, and he also pledged to take a firm approach on all Port Authority matters if elected in the fall, suggesting he won’t be as cooperative with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo as Gov. Chris Christie has been during his two terms in office.

“On my watch, New Jersey will no longer be a stepchild to the needs of New York at the Port Authority,” Murphy said in a statement.

The forceful posturing from the New Jersey officials comes as the Port Authority’s commissioners are planning to vote on Thursday on both the capital plan and the $70 million planning initiative that was highlighted by the senators yesterday.

Totaling just over the $32 billion, the capital plan dedicates $2.7 billion for the planned Gateway rail-tunnel project and another $1.7 billion to extend PATH-train service from lower Manhattan to Newark Liberty International Airport. Improvements at the George Washington Bridge and the helix leading to the Lincoln Tunnel are other elements of the capital plan that would have an impact on New Jersey commuters. More than $3 billion would also go to improvements planned for airports in New York, a total that includes funding for a rail link to LaGuardia Airport in Queens.

But it’s the $3.5 billion that’s set aside to replace the Port Authority’s 1950s-era bus terminal, which is located in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood on the west side of Manhattan, that has drawn the most controversy in recent months, including a dispute over whether the facility itself should remain in Manhattan.

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 10 percent by 2020, and by roughly 50 percent by 2040. The Port Authority estimates the cost of replacing the bus terminal at between $7.5 billion and $10 billion, meaning the $3.5 billion that is included in the proposed capital plan would be enough to start the project but not bring it to completion before 2026.

While officials from New Jersey would like to see a speedier timeline for the bus-terminal replacement, they said yesterday that passage of the $70 million is crucial given New York officials have been threatening to further stall the project using their authority to oversee local approvals. The $70 million would be used to advance the planning process and improve short-term capacity.

Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) said the bus terminal should be a priority for both states given how connected the regional economy has become. Thousands of New Jersey residents work in New York, buy lunches there during the workday, and send income-tax payments each year to Albany.

“We are interconnected, one way or another, and the commissioners from New Jersey, when they come to work on Thursday, I think they need to realize we need to continue that interconnection,” Sarlo said.

“Making this the number one priority is a benefit to the state of New Jersey, and at the same time, to Manhattan,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union) stressed that lawmakers from both parties in New Jersey are united in the push for the new bus terminal.

“Projects like this are exactly what the Port Authority was created for,” Kean said.

But one voice that’s been largely missing from the public debate over the bus terminal has been Christie’s. The Republican governor has adopted a low-profile approach to the Port Authority in the wake of the Bridgegate scandal, which involved several close allies plotting to close local access lanes to the agency’s George Washington Bridge to punish Fort Lee’s mayor for not endorsing Christie’s reelection bid in 2013. Yet because each state’s governor has veto power over Port Authority actions, Christie could hold up the entire 10-year capital plan to ensure Cuomo signs off on prioritizing the bus-terminal project.

Murphy, the former U.S. ambassador to Germany, suggested yesterday that he would take a far more aggressive approach on Port Authority issues.

“It is time that the Port Authority realize that it serves the needs of tollpayers on both sides of the Hudson River and act accordingly,” Murphy said.

Given Christie’s historically low popularity among New Jersey voters, many expect a Democrat will win this year’s gubernatorial election. And right now, Murphy, a Middletown resident, seems to have the inside edge among a Democratic primary field that also includes state Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union), and former U.S. Treasury official Jim Johnson of Montclair, among others.

“Funding the Gateway Project, constructing a new bus terminal that will improve commuting capacity, and expanding capacity on PATH trains is an economic imperative for our region, not just for our state,” Murphy said.