By David Cruz
It’s the middle of the afternoon, hours before the evening rush, but the Port Authority Bus Terminal in midtown — the nation’s busiest — is a heaving mass of people, heading to and from the city, from the crowded sidewalks out front, to the sweaty and sometimes dank hallways, onto long lines and bus platforms groaning under the weight of hundreds of thousands of daily commutes. A quick sample of commuters produces some comments that might not surprise most people.
“It’s not very welcoming when people from other states come and they see all these homeless people out here, drug addicts, people sleeping here, perverts walking around,” said one man.
“And the aesthetics,” added another. “They tried to change outside, but it’s still the Port Authority Bus Terminal, let’s face it. They got signs in there that say ‘It’s not just the Port Authority.’ Yeah, what is it? It’s a bus station.”
Two tourists from the U.K. admitted that they loved it, despite the common complaints about its appearance. “We love the whole feeling in there,” said one. “It’s brilliant.”
Clearly, it’s the kind of place only someone from somewhere else could love. For many people around here — including Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, who, along with Senate President Steve Sweeney and Sen. Bob Gordon toured the terminal — the place just needs to go. During the tour of some of the terminal’s operations, the senators got a behind the scenes look at how this place, despite all the challenges, actually runs.
“There’s a lot of things that have to go right for the system to work,” Terminal General Manger Diannae Ehler told the legislators, “And that’s what we have staff keeping an eye on everyday, both the staff that work at the bus terminal and the staff that work at the Lincoln Tunnel understand how critical operating a mass transit system is.
That’s 90,000 travelers during the morning rush alone, 630 what they call “bus movements” an hour. Impressive, on the surface, but when it breaks down it really breaks down and when you’re stuck in the bus terminal, well, that can be unpleasant. The Port Authority has set aside $90 million in capital funds to make some short-term fixes, but, says Sweeney, that is woefully inadequate.
“The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is a transportation authority and this terminal, nor the tunnels, were in their 10-year capital plan, which is insane,” he said, shaking his head.
Gordon raised the scenario that many transit experts say is likely, one of the commuter tunnels into Manhattan needing to be taken out of service for an extended period of time.
“You’re going to see a 75 percent reduction in the capacity of that tube,” said Gordon. “Eighty thousand people are suddenly going have to find a way to get to work.”
Gordon says some of the rosy predictions he’s heard from the agency about being able to pick up just 60 percent of that demand is unacceptable. It’s something commuters like Sheila Powers, of Marlboro, shudders to think about.
“I can wait some nights for two or three buses to go by,” she told the legislators. “And the help that is in here, these gentlemen that work in here, couldn’t be any nastier.”
A Port Authority official on the tour said he’d check with his bosses to see if he could speak to us, but when we turned around, he was gone, disappeared into the ocean of humanity that gives this building life, while at the same time, choking it to death.