Every time someone — the Port Authority, a media leak, anyone — discusses plans to extend the PATH train from Newark Penn Station to the airport a few miles away, the price goes up. When the plan first surfaced in September of 2012, the agency anticipated spending $600 million on design and construction. This past fall, Crain’s pegged the cost of the extension at $1 billion, and despite a report a few weeks ago that pegged the final price at $2-$4 billion, officially, the Port Authority predicts the PATH airport extension will cost $1.5 billion. It was officially unveiled today in a presentation to the Port Authority board, and if all goes according to plan, it will be open by 2024.
Before we start to ask questions surrounding the purpose and need for this project, let’s figure out what we can get for $1.5 billion. For some reason, Gov. Chris Christie has promised this extension to United Airlines in exchange for service to Atlantic City. It’s unclear why the airlines would be so keen on a PATH extension to the airport; it’s not likely to cause a significant increase in travelers flying out of the Jersey airport. But here we are.
So for $1.5 billion, the Port Authority expects to extend PATH from Newark along a pre-existing right-of-way to the Newark Airport station. This isn’t, you’ll note, a pure one-seat ride to the airport, but more on that soon. As part of the work, the PA will construct new platforms and bolster “associated station passenger infrastructure” to improve connections to the AirTrain. The agency will have to replace the rail storage yard near the airport — a significant driver of costs. They’ll have to make modifications to Newark for bidirectional PATH train flow, and they may look to find private dollars for a garage for non-airport travelers near the new station. An interim stop between Newark and the airport is not currently in the works.
What we don’t know is the cost breakdown of this project. There’s no explanation of how Port Authority got to $1.5 billion, and we have no idea if an agency that hasn’t been able to control costs and has built the world’s most expensive train station, hallway and office building can actually deliver something on budget. We also don’t know why this project is on the table. What are ridership projections? How much will PATH have to spend on rolling stock to maintain its current headways? What are the increased operating costs of sending trains a few more miles away from its busiest stations? Those are questions that won’t be answered today.
Furthermore, there seem to be some popular misconceptions about the plan. In its press materials, the Port Authority itself called this a one-seat ride to the airport, but it’s no more a one-seat ride than the A train to JFK. This is a one-seat ride through Lower Manhattan, Jersey City, Harrison and Newark to the AirTrain. Riders will then transfer to the AirTrain before reaching the terminal. That’s a two-seat ride, and it’s worth noting that both New Jersey Transit and Amtrak service, albeit imperfectly, the airport in a similar way. Is this the best use of at least $1.5 billion in an effort to improve airport access?
On the other hand, this project isn’t completely without merit. It will provide a direct rail link to Lower Manhattan via Jersey City. Both of those markets are growing, and both are without particularly convenient access to the airport. Plus, PATH offers a cheaper ride than New Jersey Transit and, potentially, more frequent service.
That said, I keep coming back to cost. Why does this cost $1.5 billion? What else can we do with that money to improve real transit issues? On my list of priorities, rail access to Newark ranks pretty low, and the Port Authority would be better off spending this $1.5 billion elsewhere. For the right price, this airport extension would be worth it, but anything beyond the mid-nine figure range is just too much. Too many questions, too few answers.