Port Authority Bus Terminal Neglected as Finances Erode
Every day, more than 230,000 commuters snake through the decaying 64-year-old corridors of the world’s busiest bus depot. Missing ceiling panels reveal leaky pipes. Dirty bathrooms and shuttered shops add to the gloom. On a recent weekday morning, a homeless person slept alongside an escalator.
“It’s yesterday’s bus terminal,” said Kenneth Lipper, one of 10 Port Authority commissioners. “We can benefit greatly from a new bus terminal, and we don’t have the money for it.”
The station’s deteriorating condition illustrates the dysfunction at the agency that owns and operates the 223-gate facility near Times Square, the area’s three major airports, four bridges, commuter rail, two tunnels, ports and the World Trade Center redevelopment.
Once a vital force in the regional economy, the Port Authority has been sapped by growing deficits at its PATH railroad, cost overruns at the trade center and spending on pet projects for the governors of New York and New Jersey, according to a report last week.
About $170 million, or less than 1 percent, of the Port Authority’s $27.6 billion 10-year capital plan is allocated to the bus station. By contrast, the PATH train, which carries about half as many people into the city from New Jersey, will get $3.3 billion, or 12 percent.
“Buses aren’t getting the attention they deserve,” said Veronica Vanterpool, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, which lobbies for public transit in the New York City region.
The operations of the Port Authority have been under scrutiny since September, when allies of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie closed lanes at the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, a town whose mayor declined to support the governor’s re-election. Chairman David Samson resigned last month after a report commissioned by Christie on the bridge affair recommended changes at the agency.
The scandal has former executives and trade groups saying the authority has become a captive of politics at the expense of maintaining crucial infrastructure for the biggest U.S. metropolitan area.
Even as the PATH, or Port Authority Trans-Hudson Railroad, lost about $320 million last year, the agency is planning a $1.5 billion extension from lower Manhattan to Newark Liberty International Airport.
The Transportation Campaign says an extension would be redundant. Travelers can take an NJ Transit train from Pennsylvania Station in midtown Manhattan directly to the airport, or they can get there from the downtown PATH by transferring to NJ Transit at Newark’s Pennsylvania Station.
Port Authority officials say they aren’t neglecting the terminal and are seeking to increase capacity and improve service. Last month, the agency applied for a $230 million federal grant to help finance a new staging area over the north tube of the Lincoln Tunnel, said Andrew Lynn, director of planning and regional development at the Port Authority.
If the agency gets the grant, it would chip in an additional $170 million to complete the first phase of the facility, which would be connected to the terminal by ramps. That would enable the Port Authority to funnel more than 200 additional coaches into the terminal at the evening peak, improving on-time service and clearing buses from city streets, Lynn said.
The Port Authority also sought bids for development rights on two lots it owns totaling about 38,000 square feet. Selling the rights would generate revenue for improvements. The agency also has several million square feet of development rights above the station and on parcels of land nearby, said Lynn. A bus master plan will be completed early next year, he said.
Redeveloping the terminal and finding a place to park the 7,800 buses that arrive and depart Manhattan daily has taken on greater urgency since 2010, when Christie canceled a plan to build a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River.
Over the past 30 years, the number of people crossing the Hudson on a typical workday has grown by 500,000, according to the Port Authority. Yet New York, New Jersey and the federal government haven’t built a single lane or track across the river in the last half-century. The need for more U.S. infrastructure investment was the point Biden was trying to make when he cited LaGuardia at a conference in February.
The number of passengers crossing by bus from New Jersey into Manhattan’s central business district increased by 54 percent between 1963 and 2012, according to the Port Authority.
Many buses from New Jersey that drop off passengers in the morning head back across the Hudson River because of a lack of parking, only to return in the afternoon empty for the evening commute.
Without a place to park, the motor coaches circle the streets awaiting their turn to get into the terminal or idle on city streets, spewing diesel fumes.
“It’s intense,” said Christine Berthet, chairman of Manhattan’s Community Board 4, referring to the coaches, “We’re talking about a cumulative number, which is just enormous.”
New York’s 59 community boards advise city officials on planning and zoning.
More people are on the way, which will add to West Side congestion, thanks to a $20 billion development called Hudson Yards. Related Cos., which is building a neighborhood of offices, apartments and shops on 26 acres about six blocks southwest of the Port Authority terminal, will start 6 million square feet of construction on a platform over rail yards this year.
Lipper, an investment manager and former New York City deputy mayor under Edward Koch who was appointed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, says revamping the facility should take precedence over a plan to provide more aid to World Trade Center developer Larry Silverstein.
Port Authority Vice Chairman Scott Rechler, also a Cuomo appointee, is calling for the agency to guarantee $1.2 billion of financing to help Silverstein build 3 World Trade Center, a 2.5 million-square-foot office tower. The Port Authority may vote on the proposal this month.
“Would you rather have a bus terminal for that money or would you rather be exposed to having another empty building downtown?” said Lipper.
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