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Renderings for a $10 billion bus terminal that will take 15 years to build. (Via Port Authority)

Renderings for a $10 billion bus terminal that will take 15 years to build. (Via Port Authority)

While discussing on Thursday the Port Authority’s apparently gold-plated plans to build the world’s most expensive bus terminal in the heart of Midtown, the bi-state agency’s board let slip a joke. Concerned with the $10 billion price tag, one Port Authority Board member suggested a design competition similar to the one Gov. Andrew Cuomo has hosted for the beleaguered LaGuardia Airport. John Degnan, PA chair, seemed amenable to the idea so long, as he said, as “maybe not a Spanish architect” emerge the winner.

This was, of course, a not-so-veiled jab at Santiago Calatrava and the World Trade Center PATH Hub’s ever-escalating costs. For the Bus Terminal though, the Port Authority doesn’t even need a Calatrava to drive up the costs. Their own engineering consultants were more than happy to oblige. Despite the shocking costs, though, the Port Authority’s overseers all seemed to agree that inaction isn’t an option, but moving forward on a $10 billion replacement plan is a tall order. Who will foot the bill? How? And why does this thing cost so much anyway?

As part of the master planning effort to replace the aging bus terminal, the Port Authority released an updated report [pdf] from its engineering team. In broad strokes, something has to give. The Port Authority Bus Terminal is essentially at capacity, and ridership models predict a continuing upward trend over the next 25 years. Currently, as the report notes, “peak demand exceeds capacity,” and the problem will only get worse over the next few decades.

To top things off, the current bus terminal is structural deficient and must be replaced. The report makes it very clear: “The structural slabs supporting bus operations will need to be replaced in 15-25 years,” and doing so requires replacing the terminal entirely. Additionally, the PABT “was not built for taller, longer, heavier modern buses.” It simply can’t withstand the physical pressure today’s coaches place on the building.

So what’s the $10 billion solution? To build a bus terminal that can, in the words of the PA, handle the seating capacity of Citi Field every peak hour. The devil is in the details on the various plans. The most expensive involves a rebuild of the current terminal and all of its supporting infrastructure at their current locations along with additional capacity to meet 2040 ridership projections. (Whether 2040 is too soon a horizon for an infrastructure project that will take 15 years to complete is an open-ended question that bears investigation.) This plan requires an interim bus terminal and contains only one tower above the terminal.

The other proposals are a little cheaper with potentially more development options, but each contain their drawbacks. One doesn’t include intercity buses; a few plans move the terminal to 9th Ave. — a long block away from the nearest subway station; the cheapest couldn’t even handle today’s crowds and would require additional facilities elsewhere to meet demand. The costs and locations of those aren’t baked into the proposal.

The cost breakdown though is alarming. According to the Port Authority’s engineers, the building would come with nearly $6 billion in hard costs and nearly $3 billion in soft costs — planning, engineering, legal, professional, financing and insurance. To me, that sounds like the costs of corruption in the construction industry in New York City and not really the actual cost of building something new. The $10.5 billion price tag also includes $1.9 billion in contingencies.

Streetsblog had more from the meeting on costs:

[Skanska’s Mark] Gladden compared the bus terminal replacement to the UPS Worldport in Louisville, Kentucky, which handles virtually all of the shipping company’s domestic air freight. Built 15 years ago, he said, it cost $850 million. Taking inflation and construction cost increases into account, the project would likely cost $1.7 billion today. Moving the project to New York, with its higher construction costs, would double the price tag to $3.4 billion. The UPS project didn’t have the steel requirements and logistical challenges posed by operating a bus terminal in Midtown Manhattan, Gladden said, which contribute to the additional costs.

Gladden added that East Side Access and the Second Avenue Subway, multi-billion dollar projects under the management of many of the same consultants working on the Port Authority Bus Terminal, serve fewer people than the bus terminal. The bus terminal, built for 150,000 daily passengers, now handles 232,000, about as many as Grand Central Terminal. That number will reach as high as 337,000 by 2040.

“We recognize that projects of this magnitude and this complexity right at the very beginning result in sticker shock,” Gladden said. “We have a high level of confidence that this estimate, at this point in the program development, reflects an accurate or reasonably accurate cost.”

Based on the Port Authority’s comments today, the agency — and thousands of bus commuters — are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Much like other New York City infrastructure, the PABT is literally collapsing. It’s not designed to handle the crowds, and it will outlive its useful and functional live soon. But the Port Authority will have to find $10 billion to fund a replacement building and soon. How they do that — without a Spanish architect — remains to be soon. Perhaps they should consult Spanish construction firms though; at least they know how to build on the cheap.

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Except for this guy profiled by The Times today, no one in New York City has particularly kind words for the Port Authority Bus Terminal. It’s ugly inside and out and attracts all types of shady characters. It’s a grim place to wait for and board a bus, and practically, it’s at capacity. The Port Authority has plans to rebuild and replace, but how committed it is to those plans remains a mystery.

Last year, when the PA announced a $90 million bandaid to spruce up the bus terminal, the agency made clear that it had a long-term goal to build a new bus station. The project would take around a decade and could cost upwards of $1 billion. With potential air rights or development opportunities, the dollars didn’t seem too extreme. But a new estimate blasts that figure out of the water. As both The Wall Street Journal and Capital New York reported, a replacement PABT could run anywhere from $8-$11 billion — or essentially the bulk of a new trans-Hudson rail tunnel or 2-3 phases of the Second Ave. Subway would cost.

The number is appallingly large even as the Port Authority claims it wants to fast-track this project. But transit advocates are eying it skeptically and instead feel the new price tag is both completely divorced from reality and an attempt to torpedo the project before it becomes. Stephen Miller at Streetsblog followed this line of thinking. He spoke to Veronica Vanterpool at the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, who, citing ARC and the transit options across the New New York Bridge, said, “There’s a tendency to over-inflate transit costs just to kill them.”

The Port Authority flaks had almost nothing to add. “We look forward to updating the board on this critical project and continuing to engage the public and other stakeholders on ways to improve the bus passenger experience in the region and meet the demands of the future,” a spokesman said. But as the PA tries to find creative ways to wiggle out of another core-mission project, everyone agrees the PABT can’t withstand the crowds and isn’t designed to keep pace with transit growth and future demands. It shouldn’t though cost $10 billion to replace it, and a tenfold increase in costs even for an agency that plays as loose with dollars as the Port Authority deserves a deep, deep examination.

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The $4 billion PATH Hub will star to open later this year. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

Santiago Calatrava’s PATH Hub soars through the Lower Manhattan sky. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

Much like the PATH’s new World Trade Center Hub itself, every new article about the absurdly expensive subway stop and the man who designed it is superfluous. We learned from a thorough Times investigation late last year that everyone — from the governors of New Jersey and New York to Mayor Bloomberg to the MTA and the 1 train to the Port Authority to Santiago Calatrava — bears some responsibility from the $4 billion boondoggle. Yet, Calatrava can’t help himself, and when the media comes a-knockin’, he’s the first person in line to attempt to defend himself from charges of egotism and excess in the realm of capital-A Architecture.

The latest entry in the media coverage surrounding the Spanish architect and the world’s most expensive subway station comes to us via a New York Magazine profile. Similar to the coverages in The Times this winter, it offloads enough blame on the shoulders of long-gone state officials and Port Authority executives to make its point, but it also serves, for some reason, as a platform for Santiago Calatrava and his supporters to pat themselves on the back for a job not too poorly done. Andrew Rice, a contributing editor with the magazine, spends a lot of time doting over Calatrava and his design, and while the building makes for an impressive sight, it’s still just a subway station.

I’ve had my say on the PATH Hub over the years. At a time when transit dollars are scarce, spending $4 billion on a mall-cum-subway stop will always seem irresponsible to me, even when the building is open and, in the eyes of many, a commercial success. For nearly the same amount of money, we could have had a new phase for the Second Ave. Subway, most of the worst-case scenario ARC overruns covered, or numerous other capacity-adding transit projects. Instead we have this, and it should serve as a lesson to future generations of politicians and bureaucrats.

But I can’t ignore this piece entirely; it has too many good quotes and lines. So let’s run down some of the best. Try as it might, the New York Magazine piece just can’t help itself from casting doubt on all of Calatrava’s detractors, and the results are something to behold.

The question remains, however, whether it will all have been worth $4 billion. Calatrava’s patrons at the Port Authority no longer seem convinced. “If we were looking at it today,” says Patrick Foye, the agency’s executive director, “we might come to different judgments about how those dollars ought to be spent.” In private, Foye is apparently openly hostile to the project. “He thinks it’s a boondoggle,” says a former government official who remains engaged with the redevelopment of the World Trade Center.

Calatrava is walking away with a nice chunk of change at the expense of taxpayers:

An STV spokeswoman confirms that Calatrava’s firm has a 20 percent share of the contract, which indicates he has made around $83 million to date. Calatrava told me that it wasn’t his job to monitor the budget. “It is very difficult,” he said. “I have never estimated anything in this project, because there was a whole team, maybe 25 people, working the whole time on cost estimation and cost control. But I kept looking at those fellows and telling them this is like geology: You only know what you have under your feet when you excavate.”

Meanwhile, the Port Authority thinks its crap don’t stink:

“It’s the most architecturally complex structure ever built by humankind,” said Steven Plate, the PA’s director of construction at the World Trade Center. “But it’s a piece of art.” … “I think we are even more beautiful and more functional than Grand Central station,” Plate said. Though he is a civil engineer, he is no political neophyte — he used to be the mayor of Glen Ridge, New Jersey — and when he escorted me into the areas still under construction, he seemed intent on sending a calculated message: This isn’t our building’s fault.

Finally, my two favorite — both of which feature some adult language in the form of the F word:

Recently, at a public talk that was later widely circulated as a web video, the architects Michael Graves and Peter Eisenman offered a scathing assessment, accusing him of “arrogance” and immoderation. “Cala-fucking-trava! My God, what a waste,” Graves said. “?‘I will make wings for you, and this subway station will cost $4 billion’ … Meanwhile, the kids don’t have erasers on their pencils.”

Of course, you can simultaneously admire the design’s ambition and wonder whether it was worthwhile. “He’s one of the great designers,” says Mitchell Moss, director of NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation. “But this is a fucking train to Jersey.”

And Moss’ words are, in a nutshell, what this whole thing was all about. It’s just a station for a subway with seven stops in New Jersey.

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I don’t mean to come across as overly cynically about the whole PATH train saga that’s unfolded since 11 p.m. on Saturday, December 26th. I have numerous friends in Jersey City and Hoboken who were very upset that Gov. Chris Christie and Gov. Andrew Cuomo had even pondered cutting overnight service to Manhattan. But the announcement today by the New Jersey legislature that the Port Authority will not cut PATH service is being greeted as a grand victory when it is ultimately just the end of a political saga orchestrated by Christie and Cuomo to take attention away from the fact that they are against real and legislated reform at the Port Authority.

The big news came early on Wednesday morning when, after over two weeks of hand-wringing, the New Jersey Legislative Democrats announced victory. The Garden State’s Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto had secured assurances that PATH is “tabling indefinitely” any plans to scale back overnight PATH service. “Port Authority reform was never supposed to be about cutting vital rail services for hard-working residents,” Prieto, who represents Hudson and Bergen Counties, said in a statement. “This was a bad idea from the start and I’m glad to see it set aside. I thank Chairman Degnan for his cooperation and look forward to focusing on actual reform efforts.”

Since this morning, the coverage has been positively gloating, and for Jersey City residents, rightly so. But as numerous pieces claimed that the “plan to cut overnight PATH service” was now off the table, it seemed to be me to be a story that had overshadowed the news. As I’ve said before, the PATH cuts weren’t the story. The idea appeared as a three-paragraph entry in a massive report with various ideas to reform Port Authority. It wasn’t designed to be implemented, but it was designed to steal headlines. (That is, as I wrote, part of Christie’s M.O. in running a story.)

Some of the news pieces that stemmed from the New Jersey announcement noted how far-fetched the PATH cut proposal was. Larry Higgs spoke with numerous New Jersey transit advocates who all admitted the idea was dead in the water, and Port Authority officials essentially told Higgs as much. Matt Chaban in The Times noted how the PATH train idea distracts from the governors’ vetoes. That’s an important point too as it’s unclear if New Jersey or New York will try to override these vetoes to enact reforms at Port Authority with teeth. While Christie and Cuomo’s report may contain some good ideas, without legislation, the promises are empty ones.

Ultimately, though, the Port Authority sort of hedged even as the PATH cuts remain dead for now. In his letter announcing the withdrawal [pdf], PA Chairman John Degnan said that the PA has “tabled” the issue and would consult with local officials and the public before enacting any such cuts. It at least keeps the story alive and the door open for cuts at some point. Meanwhile, as the news cycle has ended with regards to PATH, Christie and Cuomo had turn their backs on real reform without further legislative action. While New Jersey residents certainly won, so too did politicians who had even more to lose from Port Authority reform.

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As long-time readers of Second Ave. Sagas know, I’m not exactly a fan of the GOP presidential aspirant who occasionally visits New Jersey these days to remind that he is indeed still the governor. Outside of any red-and-blue ideological concerns or the way he chooses to face down those who disagree with him, his support of transit has been abysmal. From canceling the ARC Tunnel to moving the money for transit to various road-widening and repair initiatives to his games with the Port Authority, I’m eagerly looking forward to someone sitting in Trenton who has a better mind for the way PATH and NJ Transit feed the symbiotic relationship between New Jersey and New York.

But despite my dislike of the Governor, I am impressed with his grasp of political machinations and press malleability. Throughout his years as Governor, Christie has made some decisions that should, by any stretch, thoroughly anger his constituents, and sometimes, they do. But the real political impact of his actions are often ignored for the sideshow of the better story. Weather the temporary storm to escape permanent damage.

Let’s take this PATH Train issue. It’s a shared problem with Gov. Cuomo, but Gov. Cuomo’s contempt for anyone who doesn’t drive one of his muscle cars has been out in the open for decades. It’s my strong belief that the hullabaloo over the Governor-endorsed report that mentions cutting overnight PATH service as a last resort is nothing but a smokescreen. In essence, reporters are barking up the wrong story because no one every planned or plans to cut overnight PATH service. But by leading with this one line in a 90-page report, the fact that Christie and Cuomo vetoed strong reform legislation for a report of recommendations is conveniently ignored.

It’s now been nearly two weeks since the Christmas Saturday Veto and still New Jersey commentators are struggling with the PATH move. Steve Strunsky for NJ Advance Media penned a long piece analyzing the “real reason” he feels Port Authority may target PATH. He explored political in-fighting between the Democratic mayors of New Jersey’s waterfront PATH communities and Christie; he pondered leverage over the unions; he opined on privatization or a transfer of PATH to NJ Transit (or maybe, as I think would make sense, the MTA). He didn’t mention PATH as a cover for a veto even though Port Authority commissioners have all but said as much. They won’t cut PATH service, but the media loves this story.

In a way, this is an echo of Christie’s most costly move for the long-term mobility of the region: the decision to axe the ARC Tunnel. Christie established his conservative bona fides by canceling the project despite the fact that his cost overrun projections were based on spurious data and that New Jersey likely could have worked out a deal with the feds and even New York to split overruns. But while Christie faced some criticism for the move, it was muted especially from New Jersey transit advocates who never supported the deep cavern alignment for the tunnel and wanted the Alt G version instead. So while Christie sometimes faces irate commuters on Twitter, he gets a pass, and editorial writers who try to tell the full story face a Sisyphean task.

Ironically — or perhaps intentionally — the Port Authority reform report that Christie signed endorsed a new Hudson River crossing which allowed for another round of hand-wringing over Christie’s duplicity. Again, though, the focus has been on the inconsistency of these statements rather than on the affect of Christie and Cuomo’s veto of the reform measures. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

Finally, as a Giants fan, I’d be remiss not to mention the New Jersey governor’s love of the Cowboys. I don’t begrudge anyone their sports fandom; I went to high school with Upper West Siders who were Braves fans in the early 1990s and know a bunch of people who subject themselves to Mets and Knicks games on a regular basis. Christie happens to be a Cowboys fan, but so what? While the press focuses on how that may play in Pennsylvania or anywhere during an election cycle, news breaks that Christie may have accepted gifts in violation of New Jersey ethics laws and may have funneled work to companies associated with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. It doesn’t get nearly the same press because the fandom has dominated the conversation. Yet again, the wrong story for the wrong reasons takes away from the problem.

Now I’m sure some of you will accuse me of focusing on Christie’s negatives. From where I sit concerned with regional mobility, he hasn’t done much good, but except for the unfolding stories with Jones, these aren’t even scandals I’ve mentioned. They’re simply news stories covered from angles pushed subtly by the Governor that miss the big long-term picture. I ultimately have to tip my hat to the way he runs the conversation and pits allies against allies while burying bad news behind smokescreens. That’s a political force to be reckoned with, and his counterpart in New York has done the same thing a few times as well. Again, though, I’ll say it: The PATH train cuts aren’t the issue; the veto is. The ARC alignment wasn’t the issue; the argument for the cancellation was. Dig deeper.

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I’m still marveling over Gov. Christie’s and Cuomo’s dual veto of the Port Authority reform measure. From its timing late on a Saturday night between Christmas and New Year’s to the fact that their counter-proposal contained a brazen plan to curtail overnight PATH service between Manhattan and New Jersey, this thing reeks of politics. Despite their wishes too, this story hasn’t gone away.

As the first real full-time workday dawns since the veto, New Jersey legislators are threatening to an override vote while New York representatives, and in particular the embattled Sheldon Silver, have been mum on their intentions in the new legislative session. Furthermore, although the Governors’ report featured 90 pages of recommendations, the PATH proposal is still drawing headlines. Matt Chaban spoke with late-night PATH riders for an article that appears in today’s Times, and they are uniformly against the move.

Many riders spoke about the convenience of the trip and how it drove their decisions to move to New Jersey’s waterfront cities. Others note that it allows them to work in certain sectors — particularly service jobs — while paying rent. As one said, “If there was no PATH train, that would change everything. I guess I’d have to buy a car, or move to the city, neither of which I want to do.”

Late last week, the editorial page director of The Record penned a signed opinion column speaking out against the PATH cuts. It included a gem of a line: “Christie and Cuomo know more than I do about many things, but commuting on a budget isn’t one of them. I expect that holds true for the members of the governors’ special panel.”

Doblin makes many good points regarding subsidized fares; affordable commutes; the inability of New Jersey Transit to run its own house, let alone someone else; and Port Authority priorities. He also drops a few good zingers: “And if the Port Authority wants to reduce PATH expenses, why is it building a $4 billion station at the World Trade Center where even the platforms at track level are marble? Before someone asks me to pay five bucks for a subway ride, I would like someone to explain marble train platforms.”

But what if we’re focused on the wrong thing? What if this isn’t really about the PATH train cutbacks at all? Even current Port Authority commissioners have been quick to point out that the elimination of overnight PATH service would be “a last resort.” Still, it’s garnered a lot of headlines while the real story has almost — but not quite — been forgotten.

So before we forget entirely, let’s revisit the real story: After a bipartisan, two-state push to reform Port Authority through legislative mandates, Governors Christie and Cuomo both vetoed their respective state measures at 11 p.m. on the Saturday night after Christmas. In its place, they proposed non-binding reform measures that wouldn’t have the weight of law or the bite of legislative oversight or legal enforcement. As Doblin ultimately concludes, “The process will not change unless laws change. Christie and Cuomo do not want that to happen. Unchecked authority at the Port Authority was how a $4 billion subway station resembling a gigantic gull in flight was approved and constructed. When it comes to the Port Authority, the governors of New Jersey and New York will do what they want while the public, well, they get the bird.” That — and not a misguided two paragraphs regarding 24/7 PATH service — is the real takeaway. The PATH train is just a ruse.

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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.

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A PATH extension could be a useful plan, but only at a reasonable cost.

Late December is always a good time to remember how tough it can be to get to and from the region’s airports. We’re constantly reminded of Gridlock Alert Days, and travelers heading out of town for the holidays have to leave extra time for traveling just to get somewhere to travel. It is also a time for the Global Gateway Alliance, a group nobly lobbying for better regional airports, to remind us of the deficiencies of the region’s airport.

Last week, the group released results of a transit race to Newark Airport. From Lower Manhattan, members of the GGA tried to reach Newark via the subway and New Jersey Transit, PATH, and a taxi. Obviously, the taxi won but at a very high cost while the subway/NJ Transit connection came in second, and PATH came in dead last. That’s to be surprised as PATH drops commuters off at Newark’s Penn Station with another connection to New Jersey Transit required. It’s also the cheapest, thus proving the maxim that you get what you pay for. (The full results of the study are in this pdf.)

In the release touting this competition, various stakeholders spoke out in favor of the Port Authority’s planned $1.5 billion PATH extension to the Newark Airport AirTrain station, currently under review by HNTB. Jessica Lappin, head of the Alliance for Downtown New York, called it “indispensable” to Lower Manhattan’s future, and RPA Executive Director Tom Wright noted how it would “benefit the entire region.”

Joseph Sitt, founder of the GGA, was effusive: “This race affirms what we already know to be true: millions of travelers need easier, faster and more cost efficient access to our airports. That’s why our coalition supports the PATH extension creating a direct ride from the World Trade Center to Newark Airport. It’s a win for the airport, the region and the passengers who will reap the benefits of 21st Century transportation access.”

On the one hand, I don’t dispute these assertions that airport access will be an integral part of New York’s future. On the other hand, we’re talking about a $1.5 billion, 2.5-mile extension at-grade along a preexisting right-of-way to an AirTrain stop. At $600 million per kilometer, the costs are absolutely insane in a vacuum, and drilling down on the project doesn’t assuage my concerns. Let’s take a look at the problems — which are admittedly related:

1. The AirTrain Problem. Off the bat, the PATH extension isn’t to Newark Airport; it’s to a train station that serves as the terminus for a very slow AirTrain ride to the airport terminals. As the GGA admitted to me on Twitter, a direct connection to the airport would be “great,” but as the Port Authority has shown in Lower Manhattan, $1.5 billion doesn’t get you much.

2. The Cost Is Too Damn High. The Port Authority is currently spending $6 million to study this extension; they plan to start construction in 2018, if approved, and open it for service in 2023. If it still costs $1.5 billion by then, I’ll eat a hat. And as I mentioned, without considerable additional pieces, this construction shouldn’t approach such a lofty figure and probably shouldn’t even sniff a high nine-figure cost, let alone 10.

3. Low Ridership Projections. As reported back in October, ridership projections for a Newark Airport PATH extension top out at around 6000 per day. The riders are expected to pay around 35-40% of the extension’s operating costs. (For what it’s worth, the RPA, a big backer of this project, estimated significantly higher ridership figures.) With these ridership projects, a cost-benefit analysis would raise serious questions about this project’s viability.

4. No Intermediate Stops. As now, the plan calls for a one-stop extension from Newark’s Penn Station to the airport. Without intermediate stops, this proposal doesn’t help those who live in between Newark and the airport and are in need of better transit service. For $1.5 billion, this project should include another station or two.

5. Other Problems In Need Of Money. The universe of transit dollars is a limited one, and $1.5 billion spent here means $1.5 billion less on a trans-Hudson tunnel. And that, more than a PATH extension to the airport, is what will drive the region’s economy, reduce congestion and be an “indispensable” part of New York’s future. It is, simply put, an issue of prioritization and needs.

I ultimately don’t dispute the need for improved transit accessibility for our region’s airports. They remain frustratingly close and yet seem out of reach. Sometimes, I worry that squabbling among groups that are all ultimately pro-transit can divide the movement, but as Josh Barro aptly noted on Twitter, “We need more squabbling among transit activists to stop stupid projects like the PATH terminal” from going forward. Maybe all this fighting can better contextualize a problematic proposal and ultimately work to put it on the back-burner until the region’s real mobility problems are addressed.

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The WTC PATH Train Hub is nestled amidst the hustle and bustle of Lower Manhattan. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

The WTC PATH Train Hub is nestled amidst the hustle and bustle of Lower Manhattan. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

At the risk of, as I put last night, tilting at windmills, I’d like to re-revisit the PATH Hub, and David W. Dunlap’s Times article on the many ways in which this project has gone wrong. In yesterday’s post, I framed it again, as I’ve done many times, as a project plagued by a starchitect’s ego. In my view, he ran rough-shod over a sloppy political process, and an agency beset with leadership problems. That’s not far incorrect, but it’s not the issue facing the World Trade Center PATH Hub.

The rust I focused on last night probably isn’t rust; the fireproofing wasn’t necessarily the fault of the person who sketched out a vision too grand for a subway stop. In the end, I’ve likely been too hard on Calatrava, if that’s possible, while giving the political drivers a pass. So let’s look again at some gems from Dunlap’s article.

We start with George Pataki. He was actually the governor when this crazy saga began. That’s how long it’s taken to build this thing!

George E. Pataki, a Republican who was then the governor of New York, was considering a run for president and knew his reputation would be burnished by a train terminal he said would claim a “rightful place among New York City’s most inspiring architectural icons.” He likened the transportation hub to Grand Central and promised — unrealistically — that it would be operating in 2009.

But the governor fully supported the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s desire to keep the newly rebuilt No. 1 subway line running through the trade center site, instead of allowing the Port Authority to temporarily close part of the line and shave months and hundreds of millions of dollars off the hub’s construction. That, however, would have cut an important transit link and angered commuters from Staten Island, a Republican stronghold, who use the No. 1 line after getting off the ferry. The authority was forced to build under, around and over the subway line, at a cost of at least $355 million.

It’s unclear as well how much additional time building around over the subway line took, but I sometimes wonder if that argument is a spurious one. Considering how long it’s taken to build, there’s no way anyone could have survived politically with 1 train service to South Ferry out of commission for so long.

How about Bloomberg?

Michael R. Bloomberg, who was then the mayor, demanded in 2008 that the memorial be completed by the attack’s 10-year anniversary. That meant part of the hub’s roof, which would be the decking under the memorial plaza, had to be built first, adding about $75 million to the budget.

And how about the Port Authority?

A 2005 construction contract was supposed to set a guaranteed maximum price, but to accelerate the work, several expensive subcontracts were approved. And in 2008, the authority rejected money-saving suggestions worth over $500 million.

And the security state from the post-9/11 mindset so pervasive in the early 2000s?

And there were many hitches. The Bloomberg administration upended the project in 2005, when a Police Department security assessment compelled significant revisions. To improve blast resistance, the Oculus had to have twice the number of steel ribs. The birdlike structure began to resemble a stegosaurus.

And that pesky problem of leadership churn that has rendered the Port Authority impotent and ineffective for the better part of a decade?

Consistent direction was rendered almost impossible by constantly changing leadership: four New York governors who appointed five executive directors of the authority, and five New Jersey governors who appointed four chairmen. Complicating matters even more, different projects were undertaken within inches of one another at ground zero. For a time, a plastic tarp was all that separated the hub from the National September 11 Memorial Museum. Contributing to the bloat in the budget was the authority’s practice of using it as a catchall for any related work performed on abutting sites, on common passageways and on shared mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems — over $400 million in all…

The authority did move to trim costs in 2008 by reducing the size of the Oculus and eliminating the movable roof. Still, it rebuffed suggestions from independent engineers and architects that the Oculus be even smaller, that parts of the temporary station be reused and that columns, rather than a bridgelike structure, carry the No. 1 subway line through the hub’s interior.

There’s more in Dunlap’s story, and if you didn’t read it last night, read it tonight. In a way, Santiago Calatrava is a red herring, though Dunlap’s story traces how his demands too helped contribute to the problem. This is about the faulty political process and the politicalization of the Port Authority, and again, I ask if we’ve learned anything. When the Hub opens, Shiny New Toy Syndrome will push the cost problem into the background, and we’ll forget how, even at $2 billion, this thing was overpriced. What comes next?

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Santiago Calatrava's PATH Hub soars through the Lower Manhattan sky. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

Santiago Calatrava’s PATH Hub soars through the Lower Manhattan sky. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

While in Lower Manhattan for the opening of the Fulton St. Transit Center in early November, I had a few minutes to wander around the much-transformed area. As I strolled over to the World Trade Center site, I couldn’t help but notice Santiago Calatrava’s PATH Hub. It looms above the area, piercing the sky in a rather impressive way. If you don’t know anything about the price tag or tortured history of the project, you would be right to marvel at this structure. But there’s something odd about it: Not even open to the public yet, its visible joints are already rusting.

In the various renderings of the $4 billion structure, the joints were neither visible nor rusting, and I wondered if this were part of the plan or not. And then, out come David W. Dunlap’s in-depth look at the PATH Hub with this gem at the end:

What did nearly $4 billion buy? Certainly an arresting structure, but one whose details do not match the shimmering images that Mr. Calatrava used to seduce officials a decade ago.

For instance, the ribs of the mezzanine looked sleek as silk in the renderings but in reality have the texture of stucco because of a fire-protective coating. Asked in March why no one had smoothed the surfaces, Mr. Calatrava’s office answered, “The client was not prepared to spend the additional money.”

That’s right: After falling to meet his already-lofty budget by nearly 100 percent, Calatrava tried to milk more money out of the Port Authority. If that’s not symbolic of the entire project, I don’t know what is.

This anecdote aside, Dunlap’s profile of this project is well worth the read. He delves into the spurious numbers that supported a big expense on a subway station and tracks the lack of leadership at the Port Authority as no one was in a position to stop project costs from spiraling out of control. Somehow, the PA expects 160,000 PATH riders per day, a jump of four times the current daily ridership, and it’s not clear how or where this number originates as the $3.7 billion station included no money for additional service. Here’s a key excerpt:

The price tag is approaching $4 billion, almost twice the estimate when plans were unveiled in 2004. Administrative costs alone — construction management, supervision, inspection, monitoring and documentation, among other items — exceed $655 million. Even the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which is developing and building the hub, conceded that it would have made other choices had it known 10 years ago what it knows now. “We would not today prioritize spending $3.7 billion on the transit hub over other significant infrastructure needs,” Patrick J. Foye, the authority’s executive director, said in October.

The current, temporary trade center station serves an average of 46,000 commuters riding PATH trains to and from New Jersey every weekday, only 10,000 more than use the unassuming 33rd Street PATH terminal in Midtown Manhattan. By contrast, 208,000 Metro-North Railroad commuters stream through Grand Central Terminal daily. In fact, the hub, or at least its winged “Oculus” pavilion, could turn out to be more of a high-priced mall than a transportation nexus, attracting more shoppers than commuters…

But whatever its ultimate renown, the hub has been a money-chewing project plagued by problems far beyond an exotic and expensive design by its exacting architect, Santiago Calatrava, according to an examination based on two dozen interviews and a review of hundreds of pages of documents. The soaring price tag has also been fueled by the demands of powerful politicians whose priorities outweighed worries about the bottom line, as well as the Port Authority’s questionable management and oversight of private contractors.

Read through the whole piece as Dunlap finds fault with then-Gov. George Pataki’s plans, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s meddling and the Port Authority’s inability to lead. It’s a sobering look at a flawed project.

At this point, I’ve written extensively about the wasteful spending we’ve seen in the PATH Hub, and I’m almost tilting at windmills. It’s likely that the mall will offset some of the costs, but it’s clear maintenance expenditures will be far higher than they should be. As the Port Authority gears up to invest a lot of money into our region’s airports, we can wonder how we could have better used these dollars, but the key is to learn from this mistake. If we can’t, we’ll be doomed to repeat it — at Moynihan Station perhaps or elsewhere — and that’s something the region, with its myriad transportation needs, simply cannot afford.

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