Archive for PANYNJ
Although the MTA often spends money like a drunk sailor ambling from bar to bar, New York’s own agency can’t hold a candle to the Port Authority when it comes to dysfunction and burning dollars. As Gov. Chris Christie continues to check out on the state of New Jersey and Gov. Andrew Cuomo continues to….do whatever it is he does, the Port Authority is reaching new highs, or perhaps lows, in its unconstrained approach to throwing money at every problem.
Last week, while I was out of town, the agency approved spending for a new bus terminal in Manhattan that may cost as much as $12 billion, and the price tag for the Laguardia overhaul went up by another $1 billion. Meanwhile dysfunction ruled the roost at the PA’s Board meeting as its current Executive Director Patrick Foye has been held hostage by the bi-state agency’s inability to find someone else willing to take over the top spot. How to save the Port Authority is a very wide open question.
It’s hard to know where to begin or who to blame for this mess. I would urge you to read Nicole Gelinas’ take on the dysfunction engrained in the culture of the Port Authority. It starts with a bunch of adults arguing over the scope of their powers and ability to approve projects and ends with an indictment of the two governors who don’t care that the return on their investment of over $20 billion in taxpayer money may not amount to much.
Or perhaps you wish to read about internal tensions at the Port Authority that have more or less directly led to the Laguardia renovations increasing in cost from $3.6 billion to $4 billion to $5.3 billion the span of 18 months. This time around, the PA can’t make Santiago Calatrava out to the be whipping boy (and the plan looks no better today than it did when I explored the ins and outs in July). The vote on all of these items — including approval for a new Port Authority bus terminal — last week ultimately passed, and here’s Dana Rubinstein’s take on the great big mess:
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is taking a big vote on the redevelopment of LaGuardia airport on Thursday, and thanks to mounting tensions between the New York and New Jersey sides of the famously fractious bistate agency, no one’s quite sure how it will go.
The authority’s chairman has his doubts about the project. “I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t do LaGuardia, because I think it’s critically important, but I’m not going to support it in the current configuration,” said John Degnan, an appointee of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. It’s not clear precisely what configuration would be acceptable to Degnan, but the rebuild is a centerpiece of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s infrastructure agenda — he has made it the focus of several press conferences, some with Vice President Joe Biden, who famously compared the airport to a Third World facility…
According to the agenda the Port released — and that Degnan, as board chairman, controls — if the plan goes through, the Port will have spent “$5.3 billion in cumulative total investment since 2004” on rethinking, designing and ultimately rebuilding the airport, including things like overhead and consultant fees. “The number looks higher because in the past, the Port Authority has been neither transparent nor candid in what the total cost of this project is,” he said. The issue of LaGuardia’s costs has since become a serious source of friction.
Rubinstein follows the ever-winding tale of Foye’s retention, the inability of New York and New Jersey to agree on Port Authority reform, and the failure of the Port Authority to find anyone foolish enough to take the CEO job that is supposed to unify two halves of a bad marriage. It’s a mess of provincialism dominated by artificial state borders that ends up leaving citizens on both sides of the Hudson out of control.
Is there an escape from this mess? The common refrain on Twitter — disband the Port Authority — doesn’t really get us there because we would then have to replace the Port Authority with something better. Is anything better? Is there a way to run a bi-state agency that doesn’t involve political horse-trading across state and political borders? And how is the Port Authority’s ten-year, $26-billion capital plan getting funded anyway? No one has any ideas, and for that, we suffer. Ultimately, it all makes the MTA look downright competent.
I have a series of posts on a few topics that I have in the works, including an important one on the smoke and mirrors behind Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s phony pledge to support the MTA’s capital budget, another on the potential for a looming New Jersey Transit strike, a third on the faulty logic behind the latest effort to revive the F express in Brooklyn, and a fourth on the MTA’s victory in a First Amendment case over transit advertising. But — and you knew there was a “but” coming — I’ve been busy with work and fighting a cold all week. Instead, I’ll leave this list up as a reminder to myself to tackle them soon and a tease for you to come back next week.
So tonight, let me offer a few thoughts on the new World Trade Center PATH Transportation Hub/Oculus/Calatravesty/whatever you want to call it. After the part of the building opened on Thursday at 3 p.m., I swung by on the way home from work today. As it stands now, it’s quite a structure. It’s blindingly white, even at night, with long hallways, high ceilings, and a profound sense of emptiness. The columnless structure of the Oculus with its ribs reaching for the stars feels endlessly vast and cathedral-like. All of the people were who were milling about, either to take photos or get to their PATH train, were doing so in a hushed tone usually reserved for religious buildings.
As it stands now, half-finished and half-opened, it’s also noticeably vacant. The main hall, which isn’t so much a waiting room as it is a vast and expensive passageway, is ringed with what will eventually be storefronts, but the commercial space isn’t ready. It is nearly impossible to judge the building and its form and function until the mall opens because it is a mall first and a transit center second. Since the Downtown Hudson tubes, well over 100 years old, weren’t shifted eastward, the Oculus isn’t above the platforms but rather serves as the main attraction on an underground walk that will eventually span from Brookfield Plaza to the Fulton St. Transit Center. It’s not quite a train station; it’s not quite a subway stop; and it’s not quite a mall. But it’s more the third than the first two.
One element of the building stuck out at me, and it’s something I’m sure Santiago Calatrava must hate as well. As the silence fills the Oculus, the only sounds are the constantly repeating and far-too-loud instructions emanating from speakers in the numerous escalators that ring the structure. Stand forward; walk lively; don’t run; hold the handrail; keep children in your sight: don’t use the escalators for oversized luggage; and on and on and on and on through the night. I don’t know if these stem from fear of a negligence lawsuit or ADA requirements, but they could not be more disruptive or annoying to ethos of the building. If they’re not mandated message, turn them off. We all managed to use escalators just fine yesterday; we’ll do great without hand-holding announcements tomorrow.
Finally, there is still the matter of this structure as a train station, and so far, the early concerns about narrow staircases leading to platforms that cannot handle peak-hour crowds remain a glaringly obvious problem with something that was supposed to be a selling point. How did the Port Authority fail to construct enough staircases that also wide enough to handle people flow? Why did the train station elements of the building come last?
Needless to say, my thoughts don’t touch upon the leaks that have plagued parts of the building still not open to the public, the constant need to clean and buff the slippery floors, or the cost. That’s the $4 billion white marble and steel elephant in the room. But even though the building hasn’t yet fully grown into itself, I’d urge you to check it out. It is certainly a sight to see. Plus, you can take some fun selfies.
Later today, at around 3 p.m., some of the World Trade Center PATH Hub’s Oculus building will open to the public. It’s a $4 billion project that has been delayed for years, and its opening is almost a sigh of relief rather than a celebratory moment. What’s clear is that the Port Authority is overstating the building’s importance and using ridership figures from the soon-to-be connecting Fulton St. subway station to bolster the projections of the number of people who may pass through the Hub’s free passageways. What’s also clear is that I’ve used the Hub as a whipping boy, fairly or not, for the region’s inability to prioritize and spend properly.
Over the past few years, I’ve been accused of being unable to see the forest for the trees. As some commenters have stated, they feel I wouldn’t be happy unless we build utilitarian boxes a la grungy Penn Station and spend the billions on capacity and capacity alone. To defend myself, I don’t believe that’s true. We should be able to build great public spaces while also expanding transit capacity at the same time, but I don’t have a magic formula in mind. Can we spend $1 billion — an absurd amount by itself — on architecture to every $3 billion we spend on expansion? That seems reasonable, but for $4 billion, we’re getting great architecture with no expansion. That’s where I draw the line.
Today is essentially the last day for us to really take stock of the PATH Hub. Once it opens and becomes a part of the fabric of New York City rather than a construction site, we forget about the problems, the delays, the costs. Still, as future generations of New Yorkers look to expand our transportation footprint and even as a few miles up north, Gov. Andrew Cuomo prepares for a $3 billion overhaul of Penn Station that may or may not accompany an increase in capacity, we can draw lessons from the Calatrava Hub. As soon-to-depart PA head Patrick Foye has noted, with transit dollars so scarce, it’s important not to waste them.
I’m not going to link to every review, good or bad, that comes out about the PATH Hub over the next few days, and eventually, I’ll make my way over there to be dazzled by the blinding brightness of a $4 billion building made out of steel fabricated in Italy. I do think that Paul Goldberger’s review in Vanity Fair is worth the read, but a few paragraphs in particular stood out to me. Architecturally, Goldberger compares its impact to the Saarinen TWA terminal and writes of the space:
The Oculus…is the exhilarating nave of a genuine people’s cathedral. It is a room that soars; under a great arc of glass, Calatrava has put together curving ribs of steel to make a space that is uplifting, full of light and movement, and capable of inspiring something that has been in particularly short supply at Ground Zero, which is hope.
I’m not saying that to suggest that the Hub is a monument to the noblest ambitions of humankind. It is, after all, a train station bred to a shopping mall, and unlike Grand Central Terminal, where most of the shopping and restaurants are tucked into secondary spaces, at the World Trade Center the stores ring the monumental space. This place cost billions of dollars of public money, and it’s still a shrine to the commercial marketplace. I wish it were otherwise. But that doesn’t destroy the impact of the architecture, or negate the fact that this is the first time in a half a century that New York City has built a truly sumptuous interior space for the benefit of the public…
Back when the 9/11 memorial opened a few years ago, I recall Michael Bloomberg saying something to the effect that people only complain about cost and delays when a project is underway; that once it is done, if it is any good, they forget all of that and pay attention to the thing itself. The Transportation Hub and its Oculus will put the Bloomberg Doctrine to a test, but I suspect it will pass, and that a couple of years from now, we will be hearing not about what this thing cost or about how long it took to build, but about how much people like walking through it. I certainly hope so, since nothing would be worse than to have it provoke a backlash against spending money on infrastructure. At a time when this country spends far less on public works than it should, the Hub is a rare exception to the trend. Its best legacy would be to encourage us to take more chances, and to recognize that investing in the public realm isn’t throwing away money. It is investing in the future, a gift from our generation to the ones that follow.
I appreciate Goldberger’s words, and as I chewed them over throughout the day on Wednesday, I worried that we might forget the transportation element of this project. We certainly do need to spend on public works and integrate them into our transportation infrastructure. After all, a nicer train station is one that draws people to the services it offers, but at the same time, we cannot invest all of the public money in form over function. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, that’s what happened at the World Trade Center site. Let’s build great public spaces without sacrificing all of the dollars to the need for beauty as without expansion we will go and grow nowhere.
In a few weeks, the Port Authority’s long-awaited, $4 billion subway stop designed by Santiago Calatrava will open for passengers, and when it does, it will open not with a bang but with a deafening whimper. This project, a toxic mix of bureaucratic bumbling, absurd cost overruns, conflicted city and state oversight driven out of control by a lack of interagency cooperation and onerous security concerns, and a starchitect who took advantage of a client unwilling or unable to a say no, doesn’t even have the Port Authority’s enthusiastic support, and the agency essentially said on Monday it won’t even hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a building so important that it could wind up on New York State driver’s licenses.
The news of a quiet opening came to us from Dana Rubinstein. As she reported, the Port Authority is too embarrassed by the bad publicity and price tag attached to this project to hold an opening ceremony. There will be no ribbon-cutting, no giant scissors, no self-congratulatory press conference. Instead, New York City will get a $4 opening for a $4 billion colossal.
The Port Authority’s Executive Director Patrick Foye issued a statement to Capital New York in which he explained his concerns with a ceremony. “I’m proud of the work that the Port Authority and hundreds of skilled union workers performed on the Hub,” he said. “Since I arrived here, I have been troubled with the huge cost of the Hub at a time of limited resources for infrastructure so I’m passing on the event.” He later said in no uncertain terms, “The thing is a symbol of excess.”
Meanwhile, as the building gears up for its silent opening, the Port Authority has conducted a few preview tours of the space, and the early word has been decided mixed. Justin Davidson, writing in New York Magazine, found the space visually arresting but also could not look past the price tag. Meanwhile, The Post’s Steve Cuozzo, a frequent critic of the expense of new transit buildings, did not mince words in slamming the building.
The Oculus, which will partially open to the public the first week in March, is as functionally vapid inside as it is outside. It’s a void in search of a purpose other than to connect a bunch of subway and pedestrian corridors and concourses with one another. The ribs rising to a 22-foot-wide skyline frame an impressive ovoid space, for sure. How could a white marble floor 392 feet long, 144 feet wide and a ceiling 160 feet high at its apex not be impressive?
But what will the public find on the vast, 56,448-square-foot floor? Nothing. Not a seat. No newsstands or snack concessions. No central information kiosk like the one that provides a focus to the main hall of Grand Central Terminal, to which Calatrava and the Port Authority presumptuously compare the hub.
Why? An empty floor was Calatrava’s idea. But also, the PA plans to pimp out the Oculus as an event venue, and any installations would get in the way. (How transit riders will make their way around weddings and corporate celebrations remains to be explained.) …The passageways, to open later this year, will let you walk underground all the way from Brookfield Place in Battery Park City to William Street via the MTA’s Fulton Center — although, except in a blizzard, most of us would rather enjoy the sights and sounds of the streets.
At a time when urban design is focused on vibrant street life and local pride, the Calatrava hub is mall above a modestly-used subway station. Its cost is disproportionate to its impact as, on a weekday, the Port Authority counts around 50,000 passengers — on par with the 14th St. subway station that spans the 7th Ave. IRT and 6th Ave. IND and 14th St. BMT platforms. On weekends, the $4 billion subway station sees around just 10,000 riders on Saturday and under 9,000 on Sunday, placing its weekend tally on par with the 6 train’s Parkcester Ave. or 28th St. stations. Imagine if someone proposed spending $2 billion on those stations, let alone $4 billion.
Ultimately, Foye is rightly concerned about the role this building plays in the transit discussion. He has repeatedly called it a “boondoggle” and isn’t afraid to address the fact that the Port Authority isn’t getting much bang for its buck. After all, the $4 billion investment doesn’t include increased service to and from Jersey City, a guarantee that the Port Authority won’t curtail 24-7 PATH service, a connection to Brooklyn, or a one-seat ride to JFK.
We don’t know what future awaits the PATH Hub. As of mid-2013, the Port Authority had hoped to draw retailers willing to spend $550 per square foot to rent out the commercial space, which would make the building yet another mall and one that sits just a block away from the mostly-empty Fulton St. Transit Center, another $1.4 billion expense of questionable return. Yet, will New Yorkers care in 20 or 30 years?
As Nicole Gelinas astutely said to Dana Rubinstein, time has a way of wiping away memories of lost opportunities and too many dollars spent. She said, “It, along with Fulton Center, looks like dead space to me, but we never know how the city will embrace these things until they’re 20 years old. They aren’t really ours; they belong to people who will never know they weren’t there (provided they don’t fall apart).”
New Yorkers of 2035 or 2045 might view the Calatrava hub as something that’s a natural part of the landscape, a mall like the Time Warner Center that no one really wanted but grew to an accepted part of the New York City landscape. But today it reeks of excess and waste that we cannot claw back. That missed opportunity will ring through the decades as well, a sad reminder of opportunities squandered at a time we could least afford to flush transportation dollars down an oculus-ringed drain.
The post-Super Bowl party clean-up got the best of me on Sunday. So I didn’t have time to write up a full post with additional reaction to the Brooklyn-Queens Streetcar and the realpolitik behind the mayor’s developer-backed initiative. As you might guess, that’s coming later tonight. In the meantime, two links for you to browse today.
Gothamist takes on subway slashings
If you listen to NYPD brass talk about the subway, it’s a dangerous place where too many riders are creating unsafe conditions because they keep jostling each other and also it’s not crowded enough at certain times. In other words, none of it makes much sense, and the contradictions are laid bare in this unsigned editorial that relies on anecdotes from unnamed police officers to make it sound like the subways are more dangerous than ever. They’re not, and in fact, despite a spate of recent slashings, the subways are safer than they’ve ever been. A small uptick in crime numbers this year and last hasn’t kept pace with massive ridership gains, and the crime rate underground is at a record low.
As I wrote last week, the NYPD refuses to get serious about sexual assault underground and instead are using slashing as a scare tactic. Over at Gothamist, Jake Dobkin tried to do away with this argument once and for all. As Dobkin notes, nearly all of the subway slashings have come about as a result of an argument between two passengers. These aren’t random attacks but rather avoidable incidents that shouldn’t be treated as a symptom of danger. Prior to another incident this weekend that arose from a fight between two passengers, he writes:
Sure, I understand that it’s annoying to get screamed at by a crazy person, but you have to be pretty stupid, insecure, or insane yourself to get upset by it. Take a deep breath, summon up some sympathy for the poor, afflicted soul who’s causing the trouble, and then feel lucky that you had the presence of mind to avoid a preventable altercation. Seven out of ten of this year’s subway stabbings and slashings happened because people ignored this advice! Don’t let that happen to you…Our subways and our streets are safer now than at any time in the last forty years.
By promoting the idea that the subways are somehow unsafe when they are not, the NYPD is, intentionally or not, undercutting public support for a vibrant subway system. That’s a dangerous, dangerous game to play.
City Journal takes on the Port Authority
For your weekly dose of Port Authority hate, check out Seth Barron’s magnum opus on the agency’s incompetence and corruption. For those who have followed over the years, Barron’s piece treads familiar ground: no accountability on either side of the Hudson, no ability to set priorities or control costs, and no real long-term vision all plague the Port Authority as it has deviated from its core mission. Barron toys with dismantling the Port Authority entirely but realizes there are considerable obstacles to such a plan. But no politician has an appetite for reform. It’s as close to an intractable problem as the region’s transportation structure has right now.
A few weeks ago, word leaked that March would see the debut of New York City’s newest new subway headhouse. This one is unique as it cost $3.9 billion, features a future mall and will leave a massive mark on the Lower Manhattan streetscape and internal skyline. I am, of course, referring to the Port Authority’s Santiago Calatrava-designed World Trade Center PATH so-called “transportation hub,” a brilliant bit of branding I’ll discuss shortly.
When I wrote about the opening last month, I trod familiar ground bemoaning the lost opportunity to do something better with the $4 billion. The PATH Hub looks spectacular, cost far too much and did nothing to improve mobility. There’s no connection to, say, Brooklyn or JFK Airport, an old post-9/11 idea for Lower Manhattan, and the money didn’t go to expansion of trans-Hudson rail capacity. It’s a mall on top of a subway station designed by a starchitect.
Anyway, let’s take a look at their press release touting the opening in the first week in March. The highlighting is mine:
The Port Authority announced today that the World Trade Center Transportation Hub Oculus – the iconic centerpiece of the sprawling transit facility – will open in the first week of March. The opening will provide a greatly enhanced commute for the 100,000 weekday PATH riders who travel through the station, with quicker, climate-controlled access to the Wall Street area and other destinations to the north and south of the site…
The Oculus – with its soaring wings designed by Santiago Calatrava – will enable travelers to have a seamless connection with 11 New York City subway lines and the East River ferries in addition to access to PATH trains. When the Oculus opens, PATH commuters will take new underground passageways to One World Trade Center, 4 World Trade Center, the corner of Liberty and Church streets a few blocks from Wall Street and to Vesey Street on the northern edge of the site. The new facility contains state-of-the-art escalators and elevators for convenient vertical circulation between the trains and street level…
“More than a decade ago, planners envisioned a rebuilt transportation complex on the World Trade Center site that would provide critical links between various modes of transit for the first time. By later this year, this vision will become reality,” said Port Authority Chairman John Degnan. “When the Oculus opens, commuters, visitors and residents of Lower Manhattan will have a greatly enhanced commute to and from the site for the first time.”
“The Port Authority has a rich tradition in pushing the envelope and being the premier master builder in the region. The rebirth of the World Trade Center and the construction of the Transportation Hub touched not only Lower Manhattan, but the rest of the country and the world as well. We can all stand in awe with what has been accomplished here,” said Port Authority Vice Chairman Scott Rechler.
“The Hub will be a vibrant transit center and tourist destination with an extensive transportation network in the revitalized Lower Manhattan,” said Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye. “This year, tenants, commuters and visitors will enjoy easy access to the World Trade Center Transportation Hub’s first-class shopping, dining, and amenities, and also provide them with a first-class, convenient transit trip to and from the site.”
Where to begin? Where to begin? First, the Port Authority claims 100,000 weekday PATH riders travel the station, but PATH’s own ridership numbers betray this claim. In October of 2015, the region’s busiest transit month in sixty years, the Port Authority’s own ridership numbers [pdf] show only 52,595 riders on an average weekday. Ridership isn’t going to double when the “hub” opens, and in fact, it can’t because the PA spent $4 billion on a station headhouse than on capacity increases!
Meanwhile, just look at these turns of phrases. The hub is going to offer underground walkways which connect to Fulton St. and nearby subway lines. There are no free transfers, but this is a “seamless connection.” The $3.9 billion also bought “state-of-the-art escalators and elevators.” Fancy! Degnan, Rechler and Foye also issued some gems. The PA is now the “premier master builder,” and the subway station will be a “vibrant transit center and tourist destination,” the latter which may have been the point all along.
So what is the WTC PATH Transportation Hub then? To call it a hub is misleading as it is simply a station headhouse for the 18th busiest subway station in New York City. It’s not an intermodal connection by any means, and it certainly isn’t a terminal point for a commuter rail line or long-haul rail road. The building looks impressive; the branding is on point; but it’s all smoke and mirrors. We spent $4 billion and got a mall down the block from $1.5 billion mall. Hopefully, someone in Albany is listening, and we won’t repeat the same mistake with a $3 billion mall at Penn Station. After all, for $8 billion, we could’ve covered those ARC cost overruns years ago.
By many accounts — some more concrete and reliable than others — the seemingly never-ending construction of the Santiago Calatrava-designed World Trade Center PATH Hub is holding up a lot of other ancillary transportation-related work in and around Lower Manhattan. The retail, for instance, at the Fulton St. Transit Center has been slow to arrive as Westfield, the lessor for both spaces, is working through which companies will open where and when (and which space is more desirable). A few blocks away,the Cortlandt St. 1 train stop, shuttered since the Sept. 11 attacks, won’t open until 2018, in part because of the lengthy delays that have plagued the WTC site rebuild efforts.
Now, though, as 2015 wraps while construction on the PATH Hub hasn’t, an end is in sight. According to a report late last week from Politico New York, Calatrava’s porcupine-esque building will open in March, nearly seven years later than originally promised by then-Governor George Pataki. In a short article, Dana Rubinstein reports on the opening date, rehashes the problems that have plagued this project and notes that the mall elements won’t open yet because they’re already leaking. I guess $4 billion just doesn’t go that far these days.
I’ve been an outspoken critic of the Calatrava boondoggle for years. It’s a $4 billion shopping mall that happens to house a train station, and it’s design is ostentatious in every way. From gleaming white marble that needs to be constantly cleaned to a lack of adequate staircases from track level to the fact that $4 billion resulted in no increase in trans-Hudson rail capacity, the station has been designed to be a great building first, a mall second, and a transit improvement a distant third.
Now, I can’t deny that the building is a sight to behold. It’s certainly something unique in New York City, and we should be trying to design transportation hubs as great public spaces. Utilitarian functionalism resulted in the current Penn Station — which isn’t particularly functional. Hopefully, it can get people excited about taking the PATH.
But. Of course you knew there was a but coming. From a cost-benefit perspective and from a usage perspective, the dollars are simply out of control. The Port Authority claims that 200,000 daily commuters will use the PATH Hub once completed, but these numbers defy reality. In 2014, the most recent year for which we have data [pdf], average daily weekday PATH ridership at the World Trade Center was 46,726, and there’s no way a station that doesn’t increase train capacity is going to usher in a four-fold jump in ridership. That 200,000 figure is likely from people coming from other subway stations who will walk through the mall part of the WTC Hub.
So in the end, the Port Authority spent $4 billion and over a decade building a monument to serve as the headhouse to what essentially the 18th busiest subway station in New York City with slightly more riders per weekday than the Canal St. complex that serves the IRT and BMT on the East Side. If I’m a bit disillusioned by the dollars and less than impressed by the building, perhaps you’ll understand. With money to burn, the Port Authority squandered an opportunity to invest in capacity upgrades for the sake of appearances. The pols will gather to cut some ribbons in March, but we should learn these lessons now. Calatrava’s PATH Hub will be a monument unto itself and unto the folly of spending improperly.
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.
Ask any New Yorker about LaGuardia Airport, and you’ll likely get a sigh in reply. LaGuardia is Just One Of Those Things New Yorkers seem to tolerate about the city. It’s old and charmless, with certain terminals meeting standards of acceptability and others held together, often literally, with duct tape. It is constantly ranked as the worst airport in America for traveler amenities and suffers from chronic delays due to a distinct lack of runway space. It’s not a particularly welcoming gateway to the city for New Yorkers arriving home and travelers stopping by for a visit.
A few months after the Vice President called LaGuardia a “third-world airport,” Joe Biden joined with New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo yesterday to unveil a $4-billion plan to replace LaGuardia with a modern terminal with the bells and whistles travelers have come to expect while expanding runway space to increase flight capacity. The first part of the project should wrap by the early 2020s with the fate of the rest of it in Delta’s hands. The plan in a vacuum is laudable, but there’s something about Cuomo’s approach to LaGuardia along with his words and actions on transit that has me and many other transit advocates casting rightly wary eyes toward this project.
Let’s start with the details. What do we get for our $4 billion? Based on the Governor’s Airport Master Plan Advisory Panel report [PDF], LaGuardia will morph from an airport with multiple disparate terminals to one with a signal unified building. The new structure on the western half of the LaGuardia site will include terminal space, a centralized arrivals and departures area and a link to Delta’s terminals. Delta will be in charge of redesigning its terminals and is amenable to seeing out the panel’s suggestions.
The new terminal will be a significant upgrade over the old. It will be physically closer to the Grand Central Parkway and will feature an island gate system with raised pedestrian bridges. As Cuomo’s office said in a subsequent release, “Together, the relocated terminals and island-gate system will create nearly two miles of new taxiway space. This allows for a more efficient circulation of aircraft and reduced taxi-in and taxi-out times, which will yield shorter and fewer gate delays.”
In addition to these physical improvements, the panel put forward a number of recommendations that weren’t included in Monday’s $4 billion reveal. Chief among those were the transportation access suggestions. The panel, for some reason, endorsed the Willets Point airlink and urged New York to include ferry access to LaGuardia. It also called for increased parking at LaGuardia as something that would, inconceivably, benefit surrounding communities. Finally, the panel urged the Port Authority to develop a unified security area and, building on the lesson of Sandy, storm resiliency. It’s not yet clear how these elements of the plan would be funded.
“New York had an aggressive, can-do approach to big infrastructure in the past – and today, we’re moving forward with that attitude once again,” the Governor said during his press conference. “We are transforming LaGuardia into a globally-renowned, 21st century airport that is worthy of the city and state of New York. It’s the perfect metaphor for what we can achieve with the ambition and optimism and energy that made this the Empire State in the first place.”
While speaking off the cuff, though, Gov. Cuomo led slip that he felt LaGuardia had become “un-New York,” because, he said, the airport is considered “slow, dated, [and] almost universally derided.” And herein lies the rub. If an airport that’s slow and dated and universally derided is considered un-New York, what exactly does that make the subway system and remainder of the transit network that millions use on a daily basis to navigate around the city? I’m not the only one asking this question; Streetsblog’s Ben Fried posed a similar one late on Monday afternoon. From there, we see the blowback against the plan.
That Cuomo is thinking big about something transit-related isn’t a new development. After all, his administration is building the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement, for now awkwardly called the New New York Bridge. But what do his projects do? Who benefits? By and large, airport projects are aimed at improving the lives of those traveling to and from a city, not those traveling within a city. These are transient travelers who do indeed add to the economy of the city but aren’t living in it and of it.
As with many Cuomo projects, it’s hard not to feel that this one came from his personal experiences flying between the city and Albany. In terms of bang for your buck, an overhaul of the Port Authority Bus Terminal or a real plan to rebuild Penn Station and start moving on trans-Hudson tunnels would affect far more daily travelers than a rebuild of LaGuardia airport, and the dollars would be comparable. But Cuomo doesn’t talk about these proposals because he doesn’t take buses or trains; he flies and he drives, and as the lack of public process shows, he doesn’t really care what anyone else thinks. He wants it; it becomes reality.
Meanwhile, the access components to the LaGuardia overhaul as bad as they were in January. The Willets Point AirTrain routing remains worse than a no-build option; as I explored then with help from Yonah Freemark, sending airport travelers to the 7 saves no time and will cause massive headaches for 7 train operations. The Queens ferry terminal — a bus ride away from the new LaGuardia terminals — is a laughably ridiculous idea that doesn’t even need to be logically debunked to seem silly.
Finally, as LaGuardia soars, the subways sink. Cuomo won’t commit to a progressive traffic pricing plan to fund New York City transit, and the Governor now has to console, for example, C train riders who don’t care much one way or another for a LaGuardia overhaul over the fact that 50-year-old subway cars are considered acceptable. If it’s “un-New York” for something to be slow, dated and derided — if we need a 21st Century city — why do the subways, without a contactless fare payment system, city-wide countdown clocks, or an expansion plan to meet demand, get short shrift while the airport is lavished with dollars? That’s Gov. Cuomo and his transit priorities for you.
Back in the mid-1990s, when the Port Authority opened the Newark AirTrain, it was widely viewed as a mess of a project. Trying to buy a customized product from a less-successful company, the Port Authority spent $354 million in mid-1990s dollars on the slow and hulking system with tiny cars and generally not enough capacity they have today. What they didn’t say at the time was that the design life of the system was 25 years, and well, wouldn’t you know, but time flies. That 25 years is almost up, and without a planning process that begins now, the PA will shoot past that deadline with no replacement in sight.
So you would think that the Port Authority would take this opportunity to right a wrong. Perhaps they could double down on Gov. Christie’s pet project — perhaps spurred on by corrupt dealings with United Airlines — and extend the PATH not just to the EWR Amtrak/New Jersey Transit stop but all the way to the airport terminals. Perhaps they’ll learn from the 1990s and not sink untold millions into a project that winds up over budget and years delayed. Or perhaps they already want to spend $70 million on design and technical consultants alone.
In materials released in advance of Thursday’s Port Authority board meeting, the agency unveiled its intentions to do just that. The documents contain a planning authorization for the AirTrain replacement, and the initial expenditures are significant. The PA plans to spend $30 million on technical consultants and $40 million on planning consultants. To cover the latter costs, the Port Authority is going to request permission from the FAA to use Passenger Facility Charges. And what, you may wonder, will they get for their $70 million? Straight from the horse’s mouth:
Currently, AirTrain experiences crowding issues, because demand exceeds capacity during peak periods and weather-induced delays. Although substantial investment has been made to maintain current operations, such investment has not extended the 25-year design life of the system, nor has it expanded capacity.
The proposed planning work would support alternative analysis, conceptual layouts, environmental review, cost estimates, scheduling, financing needs and funding alternatives for the replacement of AirTrain and coordination with other short-term and long-term development at EWR, including the replacement of Terminal A. Professional services would be required to support the planning effort via task orders, through the selection of a contractor(s) to replace the system, at an estimated amount of $30 million. The consultant to support the planning effort for the replacement of the AirTrain system would be retained via a publicly advertised Request for Proposals process, with award to the highest-rated proposer. The consultant contract also would include additional tasks to support the oversight and implementation of the replacement of the AirTrain system through project completion, which would be at an additional cost and subject to future authorization.
Despite a 2011 report that indicated the AirTrain represented a challenge for Newark Airport’s crowds, the Port Authority didn’t include replacement requests in its current $27-billion, 10-year capital plan. Rather, they’re going to spend at least $1-$1.5 billion on a PATH extension and, I’d imagine, at least another half a billion on the AirTrain replacement. At a time when the region is in bad need of a trans-Hudson tunnel and when New York’s Gov. Cuomo wants to spend another billion dollars on a LaGuardia AirTrain, it may be time to step back and consider exactly what we’re getting for our dollars. Does anyone really trust the Port Authority to invest wisely — besides, that is, the consultants who see dollar signs on the horizon?