Lawmakers worry Port Authority Bus Terminal plan will fail
After years of advocating for funding for a new Port Authority Bus Terminal, lawmakers are now asking for a vote on a plan to start paying for it to be delayed – worried the down-payment isn’t sufficient and could get diverted to other projects.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey expects to spend $7.5 billion to $10 billion on a replacement for the Port Authority Bus Terminal – at a location yet to be determined, with shovels in the ground at a date to be determined. It all has senators feeling a bit uneasy.
The 10-year capital plan provides $3.5 billion, including $650 million in the next five years, said state Sen. Robert Gordon, D-Bergen.
“It seems to us if this were such an important priority, there would be a greater frontloading of funds. There might be more thought given to a startup date for construction. We get the impression there are things holding this back,” Gordon said Tuesday, at a Senate Legislative Oversight Committee hearing.
Construction should begin in 2021, said Steven Plate, the Port Authority’s chief of major capital projects. It could be completed around 2029 or 2030, he indicated.
“We anticipate having all the environmental approvals in place, all the permitting, all the design and construction well underway” by 2026, the end of the 10-year capital plan, Plate said.
“You’re not making us all feel comfortable that we’re actually going to get a new bus terminal sometime in the foreseeable future,” said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen.
Plate said the work is proceeding on the same expedited schedule being used to advance the Gateway rail tunnel project.
Pressed by Gordon whether it was possible to push the cost lower than $7.5 billion, Plate said the original estimate from the engineering department was over $10 billion. The $7.5 billion figure was among a range of possibilities offered by the design department.
“To say less than that at this point, I don’t think I’m in a position to say that yet,” Plate said.
“We’ll have to make some hard decisions. What we call them is ‘nice-to-haves’ – you know, things that aren’t mandatory,” Plate said. “We can’t forget our core mission is to move people and move buses and get them in and out, and then secondarily some of the other experiences relative to the facility, which are nice to have and may not be as critical.”
Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen, a professional engineer, said the costs will be more predictable if the bus terminal is built at a new location, not by adapting the current terminal, which opened in 1950 and was expanded in 1981.
“Retrofitting that existing 1950s-style design is going to be extremely costly and extremely difficult,” Sarlo said. “It’s no different than renovating a 2,000- or 1,500-square foot Cape Cod single-family home. You all know what it’s like. When you take off the sheet rock, you have no idea what you’re going to find.”
The bus terminal already can’t handle its passenger demands, or the new, larger buses. Demand is expected to grow from 232,000 peak-hour passengers on an average weekday now to 270,000 by 2020 and 337,000 by 2040, Plate said.
The agency is looking at other alternatives that, combined with the new bus terminal, could “possibly bleed off a little of that growth in bus terminal demand,” said Lou Venech, the Port Authority manager of regional and transportation policy.
Those options include having bus routes end at the George Washington Bridge Bus Station or a suggested loop on the far West Side, rather than the existing bus terminal. If commuters like those options, it could slightly reduce the number of buses at the overcrowded terminal.
“There’s a set of things out there on the chess board that we would anticipate working with New Jersey Transit and other carriers, ferry operators and others,” Venech said.
From 1990 to 2010, transit ridership grew slightly in Connecticut and New York’s Hudson River valley, and it stayed flat on Long Island, while growing by 65,000 people from New Jersey, said Mark Lohbauer, the New Jersey director for the Regional Plan Association.
He said that if projected to grow by about 100,000 more riders from New Jersey by 2040.
“It’s only going to get worse if measures are not taken to improve access and provide better alternatives,” Lohbauer said.
Lohbauer says any new Port Authority Bus Terminal needs to be planned in an integrated way with the Gateway Tunnel and new Penn Station train terminal but that they’re being planned in isolation.
The bus terminal is no closer than it was in September 2015, when a vote on the replacement was delayed in favor of an international design competition, said Janna Chernetz, senior New Jersey policy analyst for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.
“Given the allocation of $3.5 billion in the current draft 10-year capital program, it would appear that the Port Authority still doesn’t have all its ducks in a row,” Chernetz said. “In fact, this whole process has been more like herding cats. And quite frankly after the testimony today, it sounds like each of these cats has had an additional litter.”
Gordon said the Port Authority shouldn’t spend around $4 billion expanding PATH train service to Newark Liberty International Airport, or to John F. Kennedy or LaGuardia airports in New York. It needs to improve existing services, not expand them in ways that might not get many riders, he said.
The bus terminal is already beyond its capacity, and train service could be crippled if one of the existing century-old train tunnels has a problem that knocks it out of service before the planned Gateway Tunnel is ready, he said.
“We could see an economic depression in North Jersey, given the dependence of North Jersey commuters on these trans-Hudson facilities. People are simply going to leave New Jersey,” said Gordon, who said people would move to Westchester County, Connecticut or Long Island for better commutes.