The Port Authority’s commissioners approved a $32 billion capital plan yesterday that includes significant funding commitments for top New Jersey priorities like the Gateway trans-Hudson rail-tunnel and the long-awaited replacement of the bistate agency’s aging midtown Manhattan bus terminal.
The commissioners also authorized spending $70 million immediately to help jumpstart the planning process for the new terminal, something state lawmakers identified in recent days as being vital to ensure that red tape — and uncooperative New York officials — don’t stall the project from the start.
But even with those steps, the capital plan lacks the full funding that will be needed to complete those top-priority projects over the next 10 years, a cause of concern for transportation advocates. Some potentially thorny planning issues with the New York officials have also yet to be fully worked out.
Meanwhile, the funding for other infrastructure work that would pay immediate dividends for New Jersey commuters, like increasing PATH-train capacity by expanding the size of station platforms, also did not make the final draft of the 10-year capital plan. But New Jersey is also due to elect a new governor later this year, meaning the long-term plan could see some changes if the new governor tries to exert more influence over the agency or even as a routine in-house review plays out in the coming years.
Port Authority officials praised the adoption of the capital plan yesterday during the commissioners’ monthly meeting in New York, with Pat Foye, the agency’s executive director, calling it the most significant long-term investment in the Port Authority’s nearly 100-year history. But New Jersey officials who attended the meeting — including Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Wisniewski — questioned whether the Port Authority was truly acting in the best interest of the region’s commuters, or instead primarily serving the interests of the two states’ governors, each of whom have the power to veto the agency’s actions. Wisniewski suggested the commissioners should flex their independence and change the plan even if it meant drawing a rejection from one or even both of the governors.
“You as commissioners need to confront the reality that the receipt of a gubernatorial veto is not necessarily a bad thing,” said Wisniewski, a state Assemblyman from Middlesex County.
The particulars of the plan
In all, the spending plan includes $29.5 billion in direct investment by the Port Authority, which owns and operates most of the region’s major airports, ports, bridges, and tunnels. Another $2.7 billion is set aside for debt service for Gateway a $24 billion long-term 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 important infrastructure upgrades on the New Jersey side of the river.
The capital plan also budgets $3.5 billion for the replacement of the existing 1950s-era bus terminal, which won’t be enough to fully fund a project that the agency estimates will cost between $7.5 billion and $10 billion. That means completion of the new terminal could be pushed back until 2030 or later, even as ridership is projected by the Port Authority to increase by 10 percent by 2020, and up to 50 percent by 2040.
Janna Chernetz, senior New Jersey policy analyst for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, told the commissioners before they voted yesterday that they will be working under a “ticking alarm clock” by pushing the bus-terminal project’s completion off for at least a decade. The existing rail tunnels connecting New Jersey with New York are more than 100 years old, and they were severely damaged by superstorm Sandy in 2012. They could need emergency repairs before the new bus terminal opens and before the Gateway project is completed, which would leave commuters in New Jersey effectively stranded.
“Not one mode of transportation can absorb the others,” Chernetz said.
But New Jersey lawmakers praised the commissioners for immediately advancing the $70 million allocation of capital funds to jumpstart the bus terminal’s planning process. They view that effort as especially important in the wake of letters that were recently sent to the Port Authority by New York Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris, a top deputy of Mayor Bill De Blasio, and several elected officials representing Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, including Democratic U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler.
A ‘tiered’ review
The letters included calls for a more thorough, “tiered” environmental-review process, causing Port Authority Chairman John Degnan to question during a legislative hearing earlier this week if New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was behind the effort since Cuomo has expressed reservations in the past about the bus-terminal project. Under the New York officials’ request, the review process would take a step backward and involve “a broader look at a wide range of transportation alternatives prior to more specific impact review of individual projects,” potentially taking several years to complete.
But the $70 million planning allocation approved yesterday would rely on a capacity study the agency has already conducted to begin a thorough review of only the proposal to replace the terminal on the west side of Manhattan. And Degnan, a Christie appointee from New Jersey, said yesterday that a letter was sent back to Shorris to set up a meeting to work out any differences.
“This work must begin as soon as possible,” Degnan said.
New Jersey Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen) praised the passage of the $70 million in funding for planning and another $325 million for interim bus-terminal repairs after the meeting.
“We look forward to working with the next New Jersey governor to revise the plan to ensure that the new bus terminal is fully funded – and we will know what that number is upon completion of the $70 million study,” Gordon said.
In addition to the funding for Gateway and the bus terminal, the capital plan also includes $2 billion for an upgrade of Newark Liberty Airport’s Terminal A, and another $1.7 billion for the extension of PATH-train service to the airport, with a new station planned for Newark’s South Ward adjacent to the airport. Nearly $2 billion is also budgeted for repairs at the George Washington Bridge, including to improve sidewalks used by bicyclists and pedestrians, an issue raised by many who testified during two public hearings that were held in recent weeks in advance of the capital plan’s adoption. Another $1.5 billion is set aside for replacing the Lincoln Tunnel helix.
Calling for cooperation
Though Hoboken Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher had been urging the commissioners to include more funding for the bus-terminal project, yesterday she turned her focus to asking for full cooperation as work on the bridge and helix begins.
“We are touched really by all of the projects that you’re contemplating,” she said. “Involve and coordinate with as many stakeholders as possible.”
The capital plan, meanwhile, also includes significant funding for major priorities that have been identified by Cuomo and other New York officials. More than $3 billion will go to improvements planned for airports in New York, a total that includes funding for a new rail link to LaGuardia Airport in Queens.
But Wisniewski portrayed both the proposed PATH extension to Newark airport and the Air Train to LaGuardia as unnecessary “wants and not needs” that come as the result of a “quid pro quo” arrangement between the two governors.
If elected governor, Wisniewski said he would let the professionals at the agency decide which projects would deserve to be funded to ensure the agency’s original charter was being lived up to.
“The cross-Hudson commute is in jeopardy,” Wisniewski said. “People earn their living by using that bus terminal.”
Wisniewski also spoke forcefully about the Port Authority’s decision-making process during the legislative hearing that his Assembly Transportation Committee held on Wednesday in Trenton, drawing Degnan and other agency officials.
“The billion-dollar train lines are expected to run at a deficit and at below capacity,” Wisniewski said. “The reality is they seem to exist only to take a few Wall Street executives to the airport quicker.”
“It is difficult for me as a legislator to get behind a plan when the spending decisions are more concerned with satisfying each state’s parochial interests rather than the transportation professionals and their opinions about what our region’s transportation needs really are,” he said.
Phil Murphy, another Democratic gubernatorial candidate who has spoken out on Port Authority issues, did not attend yesterday’s meeting, but issued a statement earlier in the week suggesting he would take a more aggressive approach to Port Authority matters with Cuomo than Christie has.
“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.