It is a page out of the politician’s playbook to release bad news at 5 p.m. on a Friday. It’s something else entirely to drop it at 11 p.m. on the Saturday between Christmas and New Year’s, but that’s just what Governors Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo did this weekend with regards to their vetoes of a two-state, bipartisan Port Authority reform bill. To make matters worse, the two governors also endorsed a controversial reform plan that includes a proposal to limit or eliminate 24-hour PATH service. Merry Christmas indeed.
The basis for the veto came out of the need for Cuomo to act. Had he done nothing, the measure — which passed both states unanimously — would have become law. As The Times summarized, “The legislation vetoed on Saturday would have remade the authority’s daily operations, providing a raft of new financial, ethical and administrative rules, including opening all of its meetings to the public and asking its 12 commissioners to acknowledge that they have a ‘fiduciary duty’ to the Port Authority.”
The measures approved by the state legislatures also included calls for a single-leader CEO model, and this consolidated power is something both Christie and Cuomo have pushed to avoid. For Christie, the reasons are obvious. He or his operatives have repeatedly used the Port Authority for political gain, and at points, it has seemed as though the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal could derail Christie’s dreams of higher office. Cuomo has generally resisted ceding any power, and losing the ability to appoint half of the Port Authority leadership would be a blow to his entrenchment.
In announcing their vetoes, Christie and Cuomo released just the thing you want to read near midnight on a Saturday after spending the holiday weekend with your family: a wordy statement and pages upon pages of reform recommendations. These recommendations came out of a panel that Christie and Cuomo jointly appointed back in May. It wasn’t called the Port Authority Reinvention Commission, but it might as well have been. It’s critics, such as Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, have called it “nothing more than a mere power grab.”
If you’d like to read the whole thing, it’s available here as a PDF. Some of the proposals overlap with the state bills and include legitimate reform initiatives. Some of it is lip service. Others though are terrible, no-good, very bad ideas including one to eliminate overnight PATH service. Here’s this summary:
PATH is one of only four heavy-rail systems in America to provide service 24 hours a day for seven days a week; the others are MTA, CTA (which runs only limited service overnight), and the Pennsylvania Port Authority (“PATCO”), which operates a single line from Philadelphia to New Jersey. The PATH’s ridership falls substantially overnight, especially on weeknights, when overnight riders between 1:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. constitute less than 1% of daily riders. The cost of providing this service per passenger rises substantially, from $0.01 to $0.02 per passenger during weekday peak hours to an average of $1.15 per rider overnight.
Eliminating overnight service during weekends (i.e., eliminating service on Friday night/early Saturday and Saturday night/early Sunday) would produce operational and capital expense savings. Operational savings would include savings on energy, labor, and station operations; and capital savings would result from allowing capital improvements to be conducted without train interruption. Currently, the PATH shuts down one of the two tracks in each direction during the overnight hours to allow for capital maintenance. This reduces service so that trains come every 35 minutes in each direction. PATH could achieve operational and capital savings estimated to be at least $10 million per year from stopping service altogether between 1:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. on weeknights.
The impact of a service reduction would be limited. Assuming that some riders slightly alter their travel plans to ride the last train before operations cease or the first train after they recommence, approximately one-half of one percent of PATH riders during the time period (just under 1,500) would be affected. If PATH decided to offer riders an alternative, bus service for these customers at the cost of $4 per passenger would cost approximately $1.5 million per year.
These are somewhat optimistic projections from the reform commission and do not delve into the real benefits of having ready 24-hour service. As mayors from the New Jersey communities along the Hudson were quick to note this weekend, access to PATH has been a major driver of recent population growth, and those people most affected by an elimination of late-night service don’t have the means to find another way home. The Port Authority — which is spending $4 billion on the World Trade Center PATH station — is looking to save $8.5 million by seriously inconveniencing service and creating the feeling of isolation from communities that have grown to rely on late-night service. It is a typical Cuomo/Christie response to a transportation problem.
Other PATH proposals create interesting hypothetical. One involves asking for an alternative regulatory oversight scheme that would free PATH from onerous and expensive FRA guidelines, but that’s a very “inside baseball” idea. The other proposes pursuing “the possibility of partnering with a third-party operator, public or private, that manages urban transit or commuter rail service in order to improve the PATH’s operational effectiveness and financial efficiency.” If that isn’t a challenge to New Jersey and New York to figure out some way to transfer PATH operations to New York City Transit, I don’t know what is. That idea, if implemented properly, may be a better long-term solution for the region, but it shouldn’t come with service cuts.
Despite Christie and Cuomo’s best efforts, this clearly isn’t the last we’ll hear of Port Authority reform or proposals for PATH. Those behind the vetoed reform bill will continue to push for change, and as Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer vowed, she and many others will “vigorously oppose any efforts to cut PATH service.” As we need a new trans-Hudson tunnel and a better bus terminal, Port Authority needs former, but cutting off its nose to spite its face while working to hide the announcement from as many eyes as possible is no way to go about achieving lasting change.