Short Extension of PATH Train System Seen as Key Regional Economic Booster

John Reitmeyer | December 9, 2019 | Transportation, Business
New report suggests that bringing PATH from Newark Penn Station to nearby airport would also bring new opportunities to underserved communities
Credit: Paul Sableman/Flickr
Proponents say extending the PATH would help the transit system keep pace with job growth.

The planned expansion of the Port Authority’s PATH train system to Newark Liberty Airport could be key to meeting important transportation and economic development goals for both New Jersey and New York, according to a new report issued by a leading regional planning agency.

For starters, extending PATH a little over two miles, from Newark Penn Station to the airport, would help the system keep pace with the job growth that has occurred in recent years in northern New Jersey, Manhattan and Brooklyn, the report from the Regional Plan Association suggests.

The proposed expansion would also deliver mass transit and new economic development opportunities to an underserved community in south Newark, the report from the nonpartisan research and advocacy organization said. It would also improve direct access to the airport from other traffic-choked New Jersey communities that are already served by the PATH system.

In addition to highlighting the potential benefits of the planned extension — which is going to cost nearly $2 billion according to Port Authority estimates — the report has several recommendations for planners as the project moves forward. They include a call for close cooperation with Newark community members and coordinating with another major Port Authority project — a planned overhaul of the airport’s existing AirTrain service.

“We really want to see some clear signs of coordination,” Nat Bottigheimer, the RPA’s New Jersey director, said in a recent interview.

The Port Authority’s PATH service currently provides a direct link between the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan and Penn Station, Newark, with stops in Harrison and Jersey City. The system also provides connections to Hoboken and other parts of Manhattan. The 2.4-mile extension would link trains on existing PATH lines to the airport’s AirTrain station (which brings travelers to terminals at Newark Liberty Airport).

A big price tag

The Port Authority’s commissioners in 2017 approved an estimated $1.7 billion in funding for the PATH extension, as earmarked in a 10-year, $32 billion capital plan. The agency has also approved spending $57 million on preliminary design work and an environmental study. More recently, a 2019 reassessment of the Port Authority’s capital plan incorporated the PATH extension into the agency’s updated long-term vision, which is now being funded with recently increased tolls, fees and fares.

Proponents of the PATH extension say it would be a much-needed improvement in the region’s mass transit system since those currently seeking to travel by rail between lower Manhattan and the airport must switch to an New Jersey Transit train at Newark Penn Station in order to connect with the AirTrain. It has also been viewed, along with other planned PATH-system upgrades, as an important upgrade of trans-Hudson rail service, which stands in contrast to the federal government’s current passive approach to aging Northeast Corridor infrastructure like the North River Tunnel and Portal Bridge.

But the PATH extension has also been criticized by some as an unnecessary use of Port Authority resources that would primarily benefit Wall Streeters in lower Manhattan.

The new RPA report suggests that a number of factors have strengthened the case for extending the train service to the airport, not least ongoing job growth in the region. A combined 235,000 new jobs were created between 2013 and 2017 in Brooklyn and Manhattan in New York, and in Essex, Hudson, Middlesex and Union counties in New Jersey, according to the report.

“We have seen strong growth in employment, housing, transit ridership, and aviation activity along PATH east and west of the Hudson River, and in the catchment areas just beyond the system’s termini,” the report said.

The growing popularity of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft is also impacting traffic in and around the airport, which in turn is increasing “travel-time uncertainty for airport travelers.” The RPA estimates a late-afternoon ride on PATH between the World Trade Center and the proposed new station at the airport would take an estimated 36 minutes but that there’s a more than 50% chance that using an automobile to traverse the same distance would take 45 minutes to an hour.

More demand for morning trips to NJ

In addition, the RPA analysis suggests the extension could bring in new revenue for the Port Authority by creating more demand for trips into New Jersey in the morning, thus filling trains that right now are often largely vacant. That, in turn, could free up more Port Authority resources for additional capital investment, Bottigheimer said.

“That’s an important piece of the pie,” he said.

With the right cooperation, a new PATH station in Newark could also create new pedestrian access points to PATH in a section of the city that currently has no mass transit. And a PATH station at the airport could create new economic development opportunities in the surrounding community; the report highlights new private, residential and commercial development that has occurred adjacent to England’s Manchester Airport as a prime example of how the right planning could be used to benefit the local community in Newark.

“This model for development could be instructive for future growth at and around Newark Airport and the regional rail transportation network,” the report said.

Bottigheimer spoke about the potential for park-and-ride facilities for commuters and even medical and convention facilities taking root around the rail station at the airport as he discussed the development possibilities in more detail. Also helping matters is the Port Authority’s ongoing efforts to ease congestion by elongating train platforms and adding cars to existing PATH trains, he said.

And as a sign of the bistate support for the project, Bottigheimer pointed to endorsements of the PATH extension from the Newark Regional Business Partnership in New Jersey and from New York’s Downtown-Lower Manhattan Association.

“It’s as important for New Jersey businesses as it is for Wall Street businesses,” he said.