Archive for PANYNJ
While I was out of town last week, Port Authority David Samson finally took one for the team as he resigned amidst the prolonged fallout over the Fort Lee traffic scandal. While driving across those very same lanes on Sunday night, I laughed about how those few miles of road leading to the George Washington Bridge could create such shockwaves both in New Jersey and on a national scale for politicians with ambitious that, at one point, extended well beyond Trenton.
The national politics are neither here nor there right now. Samson left without saying much more than two sentences: “Over the past months, I have shared with the governor my desire to conclude my service to the PANYNJ. The timing is now right, and I am confident that the governor will put new leadership in place to address the many challenges ahead.” Now, calls for reform are on the table, but will two governors who haven’t expressed much of a willingness to take on transit causes look to improve the Port Authority or simply aim to re-entrench their patrons in positions long known for patronage?
In the aftermath of Samson’s resignation, the Garden State’s governor said he is open to change. “I don’t think there’s any question that structural changes are a possibility,” Cuomo said. “It’s also very complex, because the entire legal and financing mechanism that exists has an asset base that is now a bistate asset base. So it’s much easier said than done.”
On the New York side, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has tried to circumvent the issue by directing state funds toward projects that were ostensibly under the Port Authority purview. Fed up with the pace of work at JFK and Laguardia, Cuomo has tried to reinsert the state in the planning picture. That’s a recipe for short-term progress but not for a long-term structural overhaul.
So where does the PA go from here? It won’t be easy to untangle a 93-year-old governing body that commands the area’s airports, a subway system, one of the largest development sites in the city and various bridges, but it may be worth a try. Here’s WNYC’s Kate Hinds toying with the idea:
At his press conference Friday, Gov. Christie said competing state politics lay at the heart of recent problems with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Citing “a history of conflict between these folks at the Port Authority,” Christie said that the way to resolve the feud between the states was “taking the Hatfields and McCoys and moving them to separate homes. Because they haven’t been able to get along with each other, despite my best efforts, the best efforts of Governor Cuomo, and many of our predecessors.”
What he meant was converting the Port Authority from a bi-state operation into separate state agencies. Until today, Christie has blocked reform at the Port, while staffing it with political appointees who had no transportation experience. But what if he got his way and the authority were to be broken up?
The first task would be to untangle multiple bi-state facilities. The Port Authority oversees the region’s airports and interstate bridges and tunnels, not to mention the PATH trains, World Trade Center redevelopment, and… the ports. Its annual operating budget is $8.2 billion — and it has a ten-year, $27.6 billion capital plan. Transportation experts told TN that unwinding those co-owned assets would be a daunting task that probably should not be undertaken.
As Hinds — along with various regional transit and transportation experts — notes, breaking up the Port Authority is throwing out the baby along with the bathwater. Pointing to various other metropolitan regions with competing authorities, most experts seem to believe the blame lies not in the structure but at the top. “Breaking it up isn’t going to solve the problem,” City College professor Robert Paaswell said. “Managing it better will solve the problem.”
Can this agency be better managed? Can we get to a point where a tit-for-tat doesn’t involve a $1 billion investment at Ground Zero in exchange for a $1 billion PATH airport extension? Can two states with divergent political whims work together competently to improve the region’s transportation infrastructure? The answer has to be yes for the region to grow and Port Authority to succeed, but the current leadership hasn’t inspired much hope yet.
For the past month — and for the next 10 — PATH train riders trying to get to and from Jersey City have faced a very inconvenient weekend shutdown. Trains are not running through the Downtown Hudson Tubes, and the Port Authority, after announcing the work a week before the first weekend diversion, has Port Authority fingered Sandy repairs and signal system upgrades as the drivers of the work. But now questions are swirling around PATH’s ability to deliver the signal system upgrades on time, and while weekend shutdowns are expected to wrap on time in early 2015, the threat of more will loom over frustrated riders for the foreseeable future.
Ted Mann first reported on this development late on Thursday:
The PATH rail system may not install a new crash-prevention system by December 2015 after all, a person involved in the project said, even though the federal deadline was one reason that officials gave just weeks ago for shutting down weekend service between Jersey City and the World Trade Center for a year.
In announcing the work on the World Trade Center tunnels last month, PATH officials said they could meet the deadline, which would make it one of the few commuter railroads in the country to do so. Installing the system, known as positive train control, took on greater urgency for railroads after a Metro-North Railroad derailment last year killed four people.
But subsequent consultation with Siemens Rail Automation, the company performing the work, has made it clear that the goal was overly ambitious, said the person familiar with the matter. Project officials think the full system will be installed on fewer than half of the PATH system’s seven sections by the end of 2015, the person said.
According to Mann’s report, Port Authority officials feel that the initial timeline — somewhere between 2016-2018 is a much more realistic expectation for this project. The signal program is a CBTC installation with positive train control that rail agencies are expected to install before the end of 2015. In New York, though, none of the region’s agencies expect to meet that deadline as Metro-North and the LIRR have already said they can’t fulfill the mandate while this latest news pushes PATH’s compliance beyond 2015 as well.
In response to the piece in the Journal, a PATH spokesman reiterated the agency’s plans to meet their federal obligations. “PATH will have an operational positive train control system that meets federal mandates by the December 2015 deadline,” Ron Marsico said. Still, nearly all of Mann’s sources said PATH officials privately do not believe the 21 months remaining gives the agency enough time to complete the work. To do so could also add approximately $60 million to the project’s final price tag, and it’s not clear if the money is there to speed things up.
Meanwhile, Jersey City officials are seeking solutions. The Port Authority will try out a ferry from the waterfront to the World Financial Center, but it won’t be free. The easiest solution — run PATH trains to midtown but without the long delay at Hoboken — is staring the Port Authority in the face, but no one’s bothered to try this yet. And so anyone trying to travel between Manhattan and Jersey City will just have to hold their breaths and hope that this extended timeline doesn’t lead to years of sporadic weekend outages. The next 10 months is plenty.
The kicker to Charles Bagli’s latest Times article on economic shenanigans surrounding development at the World Trade Center site is a brilliant one. After delving into the fighting over a $1.2 billion loan the Port Authority is considering issuing to Larry Silverstein, Bagli coaxed out a quote from Kenneth Lipper, PA commissioner and Silverstein opponent, that highlights just how far away the Port Authority is from any sort of transit-related mission.
“It’s not a question of whether to build it,” Lipper said. “We’re only talking about timing and who’s going to pay for it, the public or the private sector. I want to finance it consistent with our mission, regional transportation.”
You may pause at that quote and wonder what financing another office building near Ground Zero when the first one isn’t fully rented has to do with regional transportation. You may wonder why the Port Authority is even considering giving out a $1.2 billion loan when that money could go toward better airports, another trans-Hudson rail tunnel, traffic studies or a whole slew of transportation-oriented studies. You may wonder, in fact, just what the Port Authority’s mission is these days and when it’s going to get back to it. Good question.
Since the days of 9/11 launched the Port Authority into an endless money pit of litigation and construction and since New Jersey and New York seemingly forgot, a few years later, how to run the agency, it’s been nothing but trouble. The PA is building the world’s most expensive subway station and the world’s most expensive office building. It’s not devoting resources to the region’s needs that it’s been tasked with overseeing, and it is debating whether or not to issue another loan to Larry Silverstein for another building.
Here’s the deal in a nutshell:
Eager to get the building up, Mr. Rechler, the authority’s vice chairman, crafted a proposal with the developers’ advisers at Goldman Sachs: The Port Authority would guarantee a $1.2 billion construction loan — half the cost of the building, and double the previous commitment — for Mr. Silverstein. That essentially promises Mr. Silverstein’s lenders that the authority would pay the loan if he could not. The developer would also have the use of $1.3 billion in tax-exempt bonds, which can be attractive to investors.
In return, Mr. Silverstein would have to put up about $450 million in cash and, unlike the old deal, pay interest and fees to the authority, which would also have to right to foreclose if Mr. Silverstein defaulted on his payments for the $1.2 billion loan.
I don’t think that’s a particularly great deal for the Port Authority (though Steve Cuozzo disagrees). Maybe this loan can push 3 World Trade Center higher; maybe it can help the PA begin to reach the cap of $25 million a year in rent payments it could receive when every square foot of space in the yet-to-be-built building is rented. But maybe not.
Outside of the maybes, it’s another real estate project funded by an agency that’s not a real estate investment firm. It’s another project that takes dollars away from solving Laguardia’s physical issues, from expanding JFK’s runways, from modernizing Newark, from building out the PATH. It’s a monetary move that isn’t consistent with the Port Authority’s mission, and it’s a New York-based chit that will push New Jersey to ask for a similarly diversionary expenditure on the other side of the Hudson.
As Ted Mann reported in the Journal this past weekend, a panel will soon convene to study ways to overhaul the Port Authority. It’s a tall order, requiring cooperation across a political aisle and a wide river. As Mann reports, PA appointees want “to return the authority’s focus to its core mission of building and maintaining transportation infrastructure in the region.” Something has to give to get there, and yet another billion-dollar loan should be just the thing to go.
As the PATH’s World Trade Center hub opens piece by piece, the city’s architect critics are starting to poke around inside of Santiago Calatrava’s marble-lined subway palace. In a piece scheduled to appear in The Times tomorrow, David Dunlap gives the new Platform A a once over, and he’s not impressed. As Dunlap sums it up, “Clunky fixtures and some rough workmanship in the underground mezzanine of the World Trade Center Transportation Hub…detract from what is meant to be breathtaking grandeur.”
As you read through the rest of Dunlap’s takedown, keep in mind that the structure is still unfinished, but in light of the fact that others have sued Santiago Calatrava over shoddy workmanship, this can hardly be a surprise. Great designs on paper that are tough and expensive to execute are, after all, a hallmark of the architect.
My favorite part of Dunlap’s column, though, comes in the form of a quote from Frank Lorino, one of the architects working for Santiago Calatrava New York/Festina Lente. “We have fought to bring the highest degree of quality to the project,” he said to The Times, “but the concerns of time, budget and scheduling have often taken precedence over quality.” Someone associated with Santiago Calatrava’s $4 billion subway station is complaining about the concerns of budget. I have no further words, your honor.
Earlier this week, on the same day that the first permanent platform at PATH’s new World Trade Center hub opened, Santiago Calatrava visited NYU’s Rudin Center to discuss his work. While it’s hard these days for Calatrava to find projects to discuss that aren’t subject to lawsuits from disgruntled municipalities, the architect gave a presentation that included a discussion on the PATH Hub. I’m not sure why anyone keeps glorifying Calatrava when his projects tend to bilk taxpayers and suffer from exceedingly high costs, but as the live Tweet stream from the event shows, costs are certainly an acknowledged issue with Calatrava’s work.
Calatrava himself has been very reticent about discussing costs. According to one person at the NYU event, when asked about escalating price tags on another project, Calatrava grew very defensive, and he spoke vaguely about costs escalating due to outside forces. By all accounts, it was not a satisfying answer, but we’ve come to expect that from the person whose Lower Manhattan subway stop has seen costs nearly double from $2.3 billion to well over $4 billion.
Meanwhile, a few blocks south at the PATH Hub, the Port Authority celebrated the opening of Platform A. The new platform retains a part of the World Trade Center’s original slurry wall and will service the WTC-to-Hoboken route. It also features, per the Port Authority, “new lighting, speakers, illuminated signs, escalators and elevators.” It’s also noticeably filled with white marble. It’s so noticeable, in fact, that one New York tabloid finally woke up to the opulence of the design.
The Daily News today has issued a diatribe against the white marble. Their arguments are focused around safety and cleanliness, but a discussion of the costs creep up as well. Calling the thing “lavish, extravagant, foolish and, very surely, dangerous,” the News opined:
This is a disaster in the making, and the Port Authority must stop the madness. After the terror attack destroyed the twin towers, the PA set out to rebuild the PATH station below the World Trade Center using the billions of dollars in federal money sent to the city. No matter how strong the objections, the authority’s six New Jersey commissioners insisted that the new station must be the grandest ever built — even though it carries only 50,000 a day, less than half of the Long Island Railroad’s Penn Station passenger load.
To fulfill its grandiose vision, the PA retained the world’s most over-the-top architect, Santiago Calatrava, a man famous, or infamous, for designing super expensive, eye-catching, sculptural public buildings without regard to their functionality….Calatrava would be just the guy you don’t want designing a New York station. It has long been known that this PATH station was going to be overbuilt. What was not known until its unveiling was that Calatrava sold the PA on cladding top, sides and bottom in white Italian marble.
While the authority insists that the floors (wet or dry) meet or exceed all safety standards, everyone knows that water makes marble slippery. That’s why the owners of office towers with marble lobbies roll out mats on wet days. That why the Metropolitan Transportation Authority uses concrete, tile or granite in the floors of its 468 stations… At this point, the PA has put only one white marble platform into use. The station has three more platforms. Now is the time to switch to a different material for all of them, something more suitable for commuters running for trains, not that anybody does that much in New York.
The Daily News point almost misses the forest for the trees. Marble isn’t absurd only because it’ll get dirty and may be slippery; Italian marble is absurd because it carries with it an astronomical cost. It’s probably too late for the Port Authority to do anything about the materials used, and at this point, the costs aren’t going down. The train has long ago left that proverbial station, but at least someone is paying attention to this convoluted mess of a subway station rebuild.
So here’s an odd, intriguing and important story, especially for those who live, work or play in Jersey City: For 45 weekends beginning seven days, the Port Authority will be shutting down the PATH tunnel between Exchange Place and the World Trade Center. Weekend service will continue to operate to 33rd St. via Hoboken, but signal upgrades and a Sandy response will knock out the Lower Manhattan connection for the rest of 2014 and into 2015. Next year, the same work will occur in the uptown tunnel.
Strangely, the PA did not announce this work until yesterday, just eight days before the project is scheduled to start. In a press release, the agency detailed the work to be done. A good portion of the work involves installation of Positive Train Control and a $580 million signal upgrade. Why PATH, basically the equivalent of NYC’s subway system, hasn’t applied for an exemption from the federal PTC requirements, is a good question. The remainder of the work involves Sandy remediation efforts that include desalination work and a full replacement of 90 percent of the utilities in the tunnel.
Unsurprisingly, as Ted Mann reports, the PTC project is already coming in overbudget. With a renewed push on safety in the aftermath of the Metro-North accidents, the PA is going to have to spend somewhere between $20-$60 million more than originally anticipated. On the bright side, PATH will also be able to run more trains once the full signal system is upgraded, but Jersey City residents are none too happy with this year-long inconvenience.
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.
For the past few months, the Wall Street Journal has been uncovering the story of a traffic jam intentionally manipulated as political revenge. For not supporting New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s re-election campaign, Fort Lee’s mayor apparently paid the price in the form of a massive traffic tie-up engineered by Christie aids and allies at Port Authority. While Christie has denied the charges and New Jersey’s Assembly is still investigating, trove of emails has surfaced, showing Christie aides at the highest levels organizing the payback.
As the accompanying article notes, the first email is the most startling. “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Christie’s Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly says to David Wildstein. The former Port Authority official had a two-word reply: “Got it.” The Journal article delves into the responses and politics of the situation with one email bemoaning the impact on children while another dismisses them as “children of Buono voters.” Christie has yet to comment, and New Jersey politicians vow to press on with their inquiry.
It is ultimately unclear how this scandal will impact Christie on a national and local level. He’s shown a willingness to use and exploit transit for personal gain, but he hasn’t done much to expand or otherwise take responsibility for New Jersey’s rail needs. I think Clyde Haberman had the most astute question on the matter: “What does it say about New Jersey that a Christie aide’s chosen method of political revenge is creating traffic jam?”
The slow lumbering ball that is the PATH train extension to Newark airport took another turn forward this week amidst some wheeling and dealing concerning Atlantic City. The stories and rationale are vague, and the extension’s future remains murky. But no matter the outcome, various reported cost estimates that have risen precipitously over the past 14 months should have even the project’s proponents eying it with some skepticism.
The story as we know so far involves trade-offs. According to a September report, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has been dangling the PATH extension in front of United in exchange for the airline providing service to the struggling Atlantic City airport. On the record, Christie officials and United executives have not confirmed the report, but the denials haven’t been particularly rigorous.
Last week, United seemingly caved. As Ted Mann reported in The Journal, United will run flights from Houston and Chicago to Atlantic City. And how does that relate to PATH? Mann offered up a bit more:
An authority official said Thursday that Mr. Christie’s representatives within the authority have been “absolutely insistent” that hundreds of millions of dollars be included in the next capital plan to begin work on the PATH project. The full project could cost from $2 billion to $4 billion, the official said, and some within the authority question the use of the funds on a connection to the Newark airport. The capital plan isn’t expected to be released before the end of the year.
A United spokesman said the airline received no incentives to provide the Atlantic City service, though he didn’t rule out applying for any existing incentive programs provided by the airport. “Any discussions about the PATH train are irrelevant to the Atlantic City service,” spokesman Rahsaan Johnson said…
Some aviation experts are skeptical that United would risk a potential money-losing service expansion without assurances elsewhere, such as the potential for a one-seat ride from Lower Manhattan to Newark that a PATH extension would bring. “It’s hard to know whether it’s a virtual carrot or a real carrot,” Robert Mann, an aviation consultant, said of the New Jersey push to fund the PATH extension. “It would be of very great interest to United.”
It’s going to be some time before the future of the PATH extension comes into view, and there’s certainly a case to be made for a more direct connection between Lower Manhattan and any of the area’s airports. But let’s look at costs. When word first leaked of Port Authority’s intentions to study the extension, the bi-state agency estimated $600 million in design and construction costs. A year later, Crain’s New York spoke of the PATH hub as a $1 billion project. For an at-grade extension over existing right-of-way, the costs seem palatable for a New York rail project.
Now, though, Mann’s report estimates costs of $2-$4 billion, and the price tag raises questions and eyebrows. Under no circumstance should a PATH extension from Newark Penn Station to Newark Liberty International Airport cost anything close to billions. Even if PATH offered a one-seat ride to the terminals — effectively swallowing the Newark AirTrain — costs shouldn’t run this high. At some point, we’ll find out more, but as details emerge, this is shaping up to be another Port Authority project with a questionable origin and runaway costs. That’s some pattern emerging.
Do you see that photo atop this post? It’s a very nice photo of a very nice hallway, and unfortunately, I have’t had the opportunity to check out this hallway on my own yet. The hallway, you see, is the first major part of Santiago Calatrava’s PATH hub to open in Lower Manhattan, and it may be the world’s most expensive hallway.
The corridor — the so-called World Trade Center West Concourse — reopened for the first time since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks toward the end of October. It provides an underground walkway beneath the West Side Highway from the PATH station to the Brookfield Place Pavilion and the ferry terminal. No longer will pedestrians have to cross over the Vecsey Street bridge; rather, they can use this gilded underground walkway instead. Eventually, this marble-lined passageway will connect to the PATH terminal and the east corridor, but the PATH building won’t be fully completed until 2015.
“The World Trade Center will be more than a place to work or visit,” Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye said in a statement. “This will also be an unparalleled destination in a premier business location in the heart of a world-class city. This vital connection is another major step toward fulfilling our vision of creating a vibrant, dynamic and transit-oriented World Trade Center site.”
So how much does this passageway cost? As Stephen Smith, now writing for Next City, found out earlier this week, the price tag on what amounts to an underground corridor was “approximately” $225 million. Smith notes that for the same amount of money, some European cities can build subway stations and a few kilometers of tunnels, but in New York, $225 million nets an ornate walkway of a few hundred feet. When nothing else gets built after the PATH train, East Side Access and the first phase of the Second Ave. Subway all see the light of revenue service, this will be why.
Smith offers up a short history lesson as well on the $4.5 billion PATH hub. It was all, he writes, Eliot Spitzer’s fault:
The station and passageway were designed by budget-busting starchitect Santiago Calatrava, and narrowly escaped a cost-cutting attempt back in 2008. Eliot Spitzer’s Port Authority chief, Anthony Shorris, wanted to scrap the elaborate underground elements of the subway station — including this passageway, as well as others that have yet to open — in an effort to keep the project within its then-budget of around $2.5 billion. But Spitzer’s prostitution scandal forced him to resign, and when David Paterson assumed office, he and his Port Authority chief were more concerned with opening the World Trade Center memorial by the 10th anniversary of 9/11. The cost-cutting plan went out the window.
I’ve said a lot over the years about the excesses of the Calatrava PATH Hub and the need for Port Authority oversight and a realignment of spending priorities. Nowhere, though, is this point more obvious than in this hallway. Someone, somewhere decided that a quarter of a billion dollars would be best spent in an underground passageway that runs for a few hundred feet under a road that’s busy, but not that busy, to prove a point. When politicians and planners start to bemoan that it’s too expensive to build and that projects are too costly for New York City, remember this hallway for it is the beginning of the end.