New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is continuing his push for the White House as trouble circles a few of his pet projects back at home. As an outgrowth of the investigation into the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal, United Airlines’ CEO and two of the airlines’ top executives resigned, and the feds haven’t closed the books on potential criminal charges. In the background — or perhaps the foreground of this mess — is the Port Authority and the planned PATH extension to the Newark Airport train stop.
We first heard of the latest iteration to send the PATH from Newark Penn Station to the airport two years ago when news broke of a $1 billion plan Christie had been considering. Eventually, the costs grew to $1.5 billion, and as I explained in my last post on the project ten months ago, it was overpriced, underutilized and inefficient. The costs, as you’ll see, may now be around $2 billion, and a multi-billion-dollar extension to a transfer point to an AirTrain already served by rail with a projected daily ridership of 6000 is simply a terrible use of the finite dollars available for transit expansion.
Meanwhile, underlying the initial proposal was a sense that something else rather than rational transit planning was driving this project forward. Ted Mann first wrote about the horse-trading with United back in September of 2013. Reportedly, Christie’s team had asked for United to serve Atlantic City in exchange for state support and funding for the PATH extension. It was politics at its finest.
Now, certain Garden State factions want to put a hold on the PATH extension, and it’s creating tension in Trenton. Earlier this month, state lawmakers urged the Port Authority to put the project on hold at least until the feds are through with their investigation. “The Port Authority should suspend any further spending on that project until United Airlines’ internal investigation, the findings, become public, until the criminal investigation of that becomes public,” NJ State Senator Paul Sarlo said.
Port Authority officials defended the project. “The extension of PATH to Newark airport was a proposed capital project long before David Samson was chairman of the Port Authority,” Christie appointee and current PA Chair John Degnan said. He cited a Regional Plan Association endorsement as proof that “the project stands on its own.”
Still, considering the issues with this proposal, it’s not a surprise state officials want the Port Authority to prioritize a new bus terminal and a trans-Hudson tunnel before the agency revisits this flawed PATH extension. Meanwhile, though, Newark politicians want to keep moving on the PATH extension. John Sharpe James, a Newark councilmen, spoke out forcefully in favor of the plan:
James, however, said the project had been extensively studied by regional planning groups and the Newark Housing Authority, and was not being pushed through haphazardly. “This expansion is not an overnight decision,” he said. “It’s sorely needed and its probably one of the most massive projects in this area.”
…James, who represents the city’s South Ward, said residents of the Frelinghuysen and Dayton Street area, where the extension and a new train station would be built, are counting on it to bring jobs and new fortunes to an area that has long been rife with crime and abject poverty…Following news of the Port Authority’s commitment to the extension, multiple hotels have begun plans for construction in the areas outside Weequahic Park, which officials have hoped might spur further development in one of the city’s most economically depressed neighborhoods.
James said he was concerned that those calling for a halt to work on the PATH line might have reservations beyond any potential malfeasance by United. During last week’s hearing, Weinberg said the nearly $2 billion the project might require might be better used on a new Port Authority Bus Terminal or the proposed Gateway trans-Hudson rail tunnel. “I believe the folks who have been talking have their other pet projects they want to fund,” James said.
There’s very little doubt that “pet projects” like a trans-Hudson rail tunnel would be far better for the region than a PATH extension that won’t stop between Newark and the airport. But that’s besides the point. The latest version of the PATH proposal may have come about through illegal backroom dealings, and even if it didn’t, at $2 billion, this is a laughably terrible idea. With this price tag, we’re through the looking glass on lack of bang for the buck, and the Port Authority should not proceed with this project. If it takes a major investigation into malfeasance between the state of New Jersey and United to get to that point since politicians won’t or can’t look at it rationally, so be it. I’m sure this isn’t the end of the line for this story though.