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Will a federal investigation or a $2 billion price tag sink the Newark PATH extension?

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.

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The $4 billion LaGuardia, seen here with an inexplicable Willets Point AirTrain, raises more questions than it answers. (Photo via Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office)

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.”

Because every 21st Century airport needs a heavily subsidized and underutilized ferry terminal a mile away from the departures area. (Photo via Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office)

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.

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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?

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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.

Categories : PANYNJ
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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.

Categories : PANYNJ
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