Archive for PANYNJ

The kicker to Charles Bagli’s latest Times article on economic shenanigans surrounding development at the World Trade Center site is a brilliant one. After delving into the fighting over a $1.2 billion loan the Port Authority is considering issuing to Larry Silverstein, Bagli coaxed out a quote from Kenneth Lipper, PA commissioner and Silverstein opponent, that highlights just how far away the Port Authority is from any sort of transit-related mission.

“It’s not a question of whether to build it,” Lipper said. “We’re only talking about timing and who’s going to pay for it, the public or the private sector. I want to finance it consistent with our mission, regional transportation.”

You may pause at that quote and wonder what financing another office building near Ground Zero when the first one isn’t fully rented has to do with regional transportation. You may wonder why the Port Authority is even considering giving out a $1.2 billion loan when that money could go toward better airports, another trans-Hudson rail tunnel, traffic studies or a whole slew of transportation-oriented studies. You may wonder, in fact, just what the Port Authority’s mission is these days and when it’s going to get back to it. Good question.

Since the days of 9/11 launched the Port Authority into an endless money pit of litigation and construction and since New Jersey and New York seemingly forgot, a few years later, how to run the agency, it’s been nothing but trouble. The PA is building the world’s most expensive subway station and the world’s most expensive office building. It’s not devoting resources to the region’s needs that it’s been tasked with overseeing, and it is debating whether or not to issue another loan to Larry Silverstein for another building.

Here’s the deal in a nutshell:

Eager to get the building up, Mr. Rechler, the authority’s vice chairman, crafted a proposal with the developers’ advisers at Goldman Sachs: The Port Authority would guarantee a $1.2 billion construction loan — half the cost of the building, and double the previous commitment — for Mr. Silverstein. That essentially promises Mr. Silverstein’s lenders that the authority would pay the loan if he could not. The developer would also have the use of $1.3 billion in tax-exempt bonds, which can be attractive to investors.

In return, Mr. Silverstein would have to put up about $450 million in cash and, unlike the old deal, pay interest and fees to the authority, which would also have to right to foreclose if Mr. Silverstein defaulted on his payments for the $1.2 billion loan.

I don’t think that’s a particularly great deal for the Port Authority (though Steve Cuozzo disagrees). Maybe this loan can push 3 World Trade Center higher; maybe it can help the PA begin to reach the cap of $25 million a year in rent payments it could receive when every square foot of space in the yet-to-be-built building is rented. But maybe not.

Outside of the maybes, it’s another real estate project funded by an agency that’s not a real estate investment firm. It’s another project that takes dollars away from solving Laguardia’s physical issues, from expanding JFK’s runways, from modernizing Newark, from building out the PATH. It’s a monetary move that isn’t consistent with the Port Authority’s mission, and it’s a New York-based chit that will push New Jersey to ask for a similarly diversionary expenditure on the other side of the Hudson.

As Ted Mann reported in the Journal this past weekend, a panel will soon convene to study ways to overhaul the Port Authority. It’s a tall order, requiring cooperation across a political aisle and a wide river. As Mann reports, PA appointees want “to return the authority’s focus to its core mission of building and maintaining transportation infrastructure in the region.” Something has to give to get there, and yet another billion-dollar loan should be just the thing to go.

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As the PATH’s World Trade Center hub opens piece by piece, the city’s architect critics are starting to poke around inside of Santiago Calatrava’s marble-lined subway palace. In a piece scheduled to appear in The Times tomorrow, David Dunlap gives the new Platform A a once over, and he’s not impressed. As Dunlap sums it up, “Clunky fixtures and some rough workmanship in the underground mezzanine of the World Trade Center Transportation Hub…detract from what is meant to be breathtaking grandeur.”

As you read through the rest of Dunlap’s takedown, keep in mind that the structure is still unfinished, but in light of the fact that others have sued Santiago Calatrava over shoddy workmanship, this can hardly be a surprise. Great designs on paper that are tough and expensive to execute are, after all, a hallmark of the architect.

My favorite part of Dunlap’s column, though, comes in the form of a quote from Frank Lorino, one of the architects working for Santiago Calatrava New York/Festina Lente. “We have fought to bring the highest degree of quality to the project,” he said to The Times, “but the concerns of time, budget and scheduling have often taken precedence over quality.” Someone associated with Santiago Calatrava’s $4 billion subway station is complaining about the concerns of budget. I have no further words, your honor.

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White marble surrounds the new Platform A at the WTC PATH Hub. (Photo via @PATHTrain)

Earlier this week, on the same day that the first permanent platform at PATH’s new World Trade Center hub opened, Santiago Calatrava visited NYU’s Rudin Center to discuss his work. While it’s hard these days for Calatrava to find projects to discuss that aren’t subject to lawsuits from disgruntled municipalities, the architect gave a presentation that included a discussion on the PATH Hub. I’m not sure why anyone keeps glorifying Calatrava when his projects tend to bilk taxpayers and suffer from exceedingly high costs, but as the live Tweet stream from the event shows, costs are certainly an acknowledged issue with Calatrava’s work.

Calatrava himself has been very reticent about discussing costs. According to one person at the NYU event, when asked about escalating price tags on another project, Calatrava grew very defensive, and he spoke vaguely about costs escalating due to outside forces. By all accounts, it was not a satisfying answer, but we’ve come to expect that from the person whose Lower Manhattan subway stop has seen costs nearly double from $2.3 billion to well over $4 billion.

Meanwhile, a few blocks south at the PATH Hub, the Port Authority celebrated the opening of Platform A. The new platform retains a part of the World Trade Center’s original slurry wall and will service the WTC-to-Hoboken route. It also features, per the Port Authority, “new lighting, speakers, illuminated signs, escalators and elevators.” It’s also noticeably filled with white marble. It’s so noticeable, in fact, that one New York tabloid finally woke up to the opulence of the design.

The Daily News today has issued a diatribe against the white marble. Their arguments are focused around safety and cleanliness, but a discussion of the costs creep up as well. Calling the thing “lavish, extravagant, foolish and, very surely, dangerous,” the News opined:

This is a disaster in the making, and the Port Authority must stop the madness. After the terror attack destroyed the twin towers, the PA set out to rebuild the PATH station below the World Trade Center using the billions of dollars in federal money sent to the city. No matter how strong the objections, the authority’s six New Jersey commissioners insisted that the new station must be the grandest ever built — even though it carries only 50,000 a day, less than half of the Long Island Railroad’s Penn Station passenger load.

To fulfill its grandiose vision, the PA retained the world’s most over-the-top architect, Santiago Calatrava, a man famous, or infamous, for designing super expensive, eye-catching, sculptural public buildings without regard to their functionality….Calatrava would be just the guy you don’t want designing a New York station. It has long been known that this PATH station was going to be overbuilt. What was not known until its unveiling was that Calatrava sold the PA on cladding top, sides and bottom in white Italian marble.

While the authority insists that the floors (wet or dry) meet or exceed all safety standards, everyone knows that water makes marble slippery. That’s why the owners of office towers with marble lobbies roll out mats on wet days. That why the Metropolitan Transportation Authority uses concrete, tile or granite in the floors of its 468 stations… At this point, the PA has put only one white marble platform into use. The station has three more platforms. Now is the time to switch to a different material for all of them, something more suitable for commuters running for trains, not that anybody does that much in New York.

The Daily News point almost misses the forest for the trees. Marble isn’t absurd only because it’ll get dirty and may be slippery; Italian marble is absurd because it carries with it an astronomical cost. It’s probably too late for the Port Authority to do anything about the materials used, and at this point, the costs aren’t going down. The train has long ago left that proverbial station, but at least someone is paying attention to this convoluted mess of a subway station rebuild.

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So here’s an odd, intriguing and important story, especially for those who live, work or play in Jersey City: For 45 weekends beginning seven days, the Port Authority will be shutting down the PATH tunnel between Exchange Place and the World Trade Center. Weekend service will continue to operate to 33rd St. via Hoboken, but signal upgrades and a Sandy response will knock out the Lower Manhattan connection for the rest of 2014 and into 2015. Next year, the same work will occur in the uptown tunnel.

Strangely, the PA did not announce this work until yesterday, just eight days before the project is scheduled to start. In a press release, the agency detailed the work to be done. A good portion of the work involves installation of Positive Train Control and a $580 million signal upgrade. Why PATH, basically the equivalent of NYC’s subway system, hasn’t applied for an exemption from the federal PTC requirements, is a good question. The remainder of the work involves Sandy remediation efforts that include desalination work and a full replacement of 90 percent of the utilities in the tunnel.

Unsurprisingly, as Ted Mann reports, the PTC project is already coming in overbudget. With a renewed push on safety in the aftermath of the Metro-North accidents, the PA is going to have to spend somewhere between $20-$60 million more than originally anticipated. On the bright side, PATH will also be able to run more trains once the full signal system is upgraded, but Jersey City residents are none too happy with this year-long inconvenience.

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For $1.5 billion, I’d expect more.

Every time someone — the Port Authority, a media leak, anyone — discusses plans to extend the PATH train from Newark Penn Station to the airport a few miles away, the price goes up. When the plan first surfaced in September of 2012, the agency anticipated spending $600 million on design and construction. This past fall, Crain’s pegged the cost of the extension at $1 billion, and despite a report a few weeks ago that pegged the final price at $2-$4 billion, officially, the Port Authority predicts the PATH airport extension will cost $1.5 billion. It was officially unveiled today in a presentation to the Port Authority board, and if all goes according to plan, it will be open by 2024.

Before we start to ask questions surrounding the purpose and need for this project, let’s figure out what we can get for $1.5 billion. For some reason, Gov. Chris Christie has promised this extension to United Airlines in exchange for service to Atlantic City. It’s unclear why the airlines would be so keen on a PATH extension to the airport; it’s not likely to cause a significant increase in travelers flying out of the Jersey airport. But here we are.

So for $1.5 billion, the Port Authority expects to extend PATH from Newark along a pre-existing right-of-way to the Newark Airport station. This isn’t, you’ll note, a pure one-seat ride to the airport, but more on that soon. As part of the work, the PA will construct new platforms and bolster “associated station passenger infrastructure” to improve connections to the AirTrain. The agency will have to replace the rail storage yard near the airport — a significant driver of costs. They’ll have to make modifications to Newark for bidirectional PATH train flow, and they may look to find private dollars for a garage for non-airport travelers near the new station. An interim stop between Newark and the airport is not currently in the works.

What we don’t know is the cost breakdown of this project. There’s no explanation of how Port Authority got to $1.5 billion, and we have no idea if an agency that hasn’t been able to control costs and has built the world’s most expensive train station, hallway and office building can actually deliver something on budget. We also don’t know why this project is on the table. What are ridership projections? How much will PATH have to spend on rolling stock to maintain its current headways? What are the increased operating costs of sending trains a few more miles away from its busiest stations? Those are questions that won’t be answered today.

Furthermore, there seem to be some popular misconceptions about the plan. In its press materials, the Port Authority itself called this a one-seat ride to the airport, but it’s no more a one-seat ride than the A train to JFK. This is a one-seat ride through Lower Manhattan, Jersey City, Harrison and Newark to the AirTrain. Riders will then transfer to the AirTrain before reaching the terminal. That’s a two-seat ride, and it’s worth noting that both New Jersey Transit and Amtrak service, albeit imperfectly, the airport in a similar way. Is this the best use of at least $1.5 billion in an effort to improve airport access?

On the other hand, this project isn’t completely without merit. It will provide a direct rail link to Lower Manhattan via Jersey City. Both of those markets are growing, and both are without particularly convenient access to the airport. Plus, PATH offers a cheaper ride than New Jersey Transit and, potentially, more frequent service.

That said, I keep coming back to cost. Why does this cost $1.5 billion? What else can we do with that money to improve real transit issues? On my list of priorities, rail access to Newark ranks pretty low, and the Port Authority would be better off spending this $1.5 billion elsewhere. For the right price, this airport extension would be worth it, but anything beyond the mid-nine figure range is just too much. Too many questions, too few answers.

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For the past few months, the Wall Street Journal has been uncovering the story of a traffic jam intentionally manipulated as political revenge. For not supporting New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s re-election campaign, Fort Lee’s mayor apparently paid the price in the form of a massive traffic tie-up engineered by Christie aids and allies at Port Authority. While Christie has denied the charges and New Jersey’s Assembly is still investigating, trove of emails has surfaced, showing Christie aides at the highest levels organizing the payback.

As the accompanying article notes, the first email is the most startling. “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Christie’s Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly says to David Wildstein. The former Port Authority official had a two-word reply: “Got it.” The Journal article delves into the responses and politics of the situation with one email bemoaning the impact on children while another dismisses them as “children of Buono voters.” Christie has yet to comment, and New Jersey politicians vow to press on with their inquiry.

It is ultimately unclear how this scandal will impact Christie on a national and local level. He’s shown a willingness to use and exploit transit for personal gain, but he hasn’t done much to expand or otherwise take responsibility for New Jersey’s rail needs. I think Clyde Haberman had the most astute question on the matter: “What does it say about New Jersey that a Christie aide’s chosen method of political revenge is creating traffic jam?”

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So little for so much: A possible route for the PATH’s pricey extension to the airport.

The slow lumbering ball that is the PATH train extension to Newark airport took another turn forward this week amidst some wheeling and dealing concerning Atlantic City. The stories and rationale are vague, and the extension’s future remains murky. But no matter the outcome, various reported cost estimates that have risen precipitously over the past 14 months should have even the project’s proponents eying it with some skepticism.

The story as we know so far involves trade-offs. According to a September report, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has been dangling the PATH extension in front of United in exchange for the airline providing service to the struggling Atlantic City airport. On the record, Christie officials and United executives have not confirmed the report, but the denials haven’t been particularly rigorous.

Last week, United seemingly caved. As Ted Mann reported in The Journal, United will run flights from Houston and Chicago to Atlantic City. And how does that relate to PATH? Mann offered up a bit more:

An authority official said Thursday that Mr. Christie’s representatives within the authority have been “absolutely insistent” that hundreds of millions of dollars be included in the next capital plan to begin work on the PATH project. The full project could cost from $2 billion to $4 billion, the official said, and some within the authority question the use of the funds on a connection to the Newark airport. The capital plan isn’t expected to be released before the end of the year.

A United spokesman said the airline received no incentives to provide the Atlantic City service, though he didn’t rule out applying for any existing incentive programs provided by the airport. “Any discussions about the PATH train are irrelevant to the Atlantic City service,” spokesman Rahsaan Johnson said…

Some aviation experts are skeptical that United would risk a potential money-losing service expansion without assurances elsewhere, such as the potential for a one-seat ride from Lower Manhattan to Newark that a PATH extension would bring. “It’s hard to know whether it’s a virtual carrot or a real carrot,” Robert Mann, an aviation consultant, said of the New Jersey push to fund the PATH extension. “It would be of very great interest to United.”

It’s going to be some time before the future of the PATH extension comes into view, and there’s certainly a case to be made for a more direct connection between Lower Manhattan and any of the area’s airports. But let’s look at costs. When word first leaked of Port Authority’s intentions to study the extension, the bi-state agency estimated $600 million in design and construction costs. A year later, Crain’s New York spoke of the PATH hub as a $1 billion project. For an at-grade extension over existing right-of-way, the costs seem palatable for a New York rail project.

Now, though, Mann’s report estimates costs of $2-$4 billion, and the price tag raises questions and eyebrows. Under no circumstance should a PATH extension from Newark Penn Station to Newark Liberty International Airport cost anything close to billions. Even if PATH offered a one-seat ride to the terminals — effectively swallowing the Newark AirTrain — costs shouldn’t run this high. At some point, we’ll find out more, but as details emerge, this is shaping up to be another Port Authority project with a questionable origin and runaway costs. That’s some pattern emerging.

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Nice hallway. (Photo via flickr user Noel Y.C.)

Do you see that photo atop this post? It’s a very nice photo of a very nice hallway, and unfortunately, I have’t had the opportunity to check out this hallway on my own yet. The hallway, you see, is the first major part of Santiago Calatrava’s PATH hub to open in Lower Manhattan, and it may be the world’s most expensive hallway.

The corridor — the so-called World Trade Center West Concourse — reopened for the first time since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks toward the end of October. It provides an underground walkway beneath the West Side Highway from the PATH station to the Brookfield Place Pavilion and the ferry terminal. No longer will pedestrians have to cross over the Vecsey Street bridge; rather, they can use this gilded underground walkway instead. Eventually, this marble-lined passageway will connect to the PATH terminal and the east corridor, but the PATH building won’t be fully completed until 2015.

“The World Trade Center will be more than a place to work or visit,” Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye said in a statement. “This will also be an unparalleled destination in a premier business location in the heart of a world-class city. This vital connection is another major step toward fulfilling our vision of creating a vibrant, dynamic and transit-oriented World Trade Center site.”

So how much does this passageway cost? As Stephen Smith, now writing for Next City, found out earlier this week, the price tag on what amounts to an underground corridor was “approximately” $225 million. Smith notes that for the same amount of money, some European cities can build subway stations and a few kilometers of tunnels, but in New York, $225 million nets an ornate walkway of a few hundred feet. When nothing else gets built after the PATH train, East Side Access and the first phase of the Second Ave. Subway all see the light of revenue service, this will be why.

Smith offers up a short history lesson as well on the $4.5 billion PATH hub. It was all, he writes, Eliot Spitzer’s fault:

The station and passageway were designed by budget-busting starchitect Santiago Calatrava, and narrowly escaped a cost-cutting attempt back in 2008. Eliot Spitzer’s Port Authority chief, Anthony Shorris, wanted to scrap the elaborate underground elements of the subway station — including this passageway, as well as others that have yet to open — in an effort to keep the project within its then-budget of around $2.5 billion. But Spitzer’s prostitution scandal forced him to resign, and when David Paterson assumed office, he and his Port Authority chief were more concerned with opening the World Trade Center memorial by the 10th anniversary of 9/11. The cost-cutting plan went out the window.

I’ve said a lot over the years about the excesses of the Calatrava PATH Hub and the need for Port Authority oversight and a realignment of spending priorities. Nowhere, though, is this point more obvious than in this hallway. Someone, somewhere decided that a quarter of a billion dollars would be best spent in an underground passageway that runs for a few hundred feet under a road that’s busy, but not that busy, to prove a point. When politicians and planners start to bemoan that it’s too expensive to build and that projects are too costly for New York City, remember this hallway for it is the beginning of the end.

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So little for so much: A possible route for the PATH’s $1 billion extension to the airport.

A few weeks after hearing once more about the Port Authority’s on-again, off-again plans to send the PATH train to New Jersey, a new story in The Wall Street Journal has me wondering about the impetus for such an extension. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie wants one thing while Newark is angling for another reason, but the cost and planned connection — to airtrain and not the airport itself — should raise more than a few eyebrows.

Ted Mann writes on the horse trading involved in the PATH extension:

In talks with United Airlines, the Christie representatives have suggested that they would direct the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to begin a long-contemplated extension of the PATH train to Newark’s airport rail station, providing a long-desired direct rail link with Lower Manhattan, these people said. In exchange, these people say Mr. Christie, via Port Authority Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni, has asked United to provide service to a slate of cities from Atlantic City—a small airport with a spotty track record of supporting commercial service. United is the dominant airline at the Newark airport, carrying about 70% of the passengers.

United has balked, the people said. And the Port Authority has sent mixed signals about whether it will include the PATH expansion, which could cost $1 billion or more depending on its length, in its new capital plan…

United might be loath to accept a deal for Newark improvements in exchange for flying from Atlantic City because the PATH expansion would be a greater benefit for passengers than for the airline, which is already flying nearly full aircraft out of Newark, said Michael Boyd, president of Boyd Group International, a Colorado-based aviation consulting firm that has studied Atlantic City in the past. “Those airplanes out of Atlantic City probably won’t make money,” Mr. Boyd said. “Atlantic City’s airport is called Philadelphia. You go right across the Pine Barrens and you’re there.”

Since word of the Port Authority’s move to consider the extension leaked a few weeks ago, the back-and-forth has been confusing at best. An event planned for mid-September was canceled shortly after the original Crain’s article appeared, and Newark officials are pushing for the extension because it would benefit its residents seemingly more than anyone else. Still, this latest story raises a few questions.

Most importantly is the why of it all. Is Christie interested in a PATH extension because he wants to help out Jersey City and Newark (along with Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn) residents get to the airport quicker, easier and cheaper? Or is he trying to spend $1 billion of state money to convince United to fly into Atlantic City, for some reason? Does a $1 billion extension to the AirTrain terminal make sense without direct service to the airport terminals or would restructuring fares on New Jersey Transit between Newark-Penn Station and the EWR stop make more sense? According to Mann, a direct extension to the airport terminals would cost around $3.2 billion, more than three times the amount of the extension to the AirTrain. (And why does an extension to a preexisting station over a preexisting ROW cost $1 billion anyway?)

Maybe sending PATH to the airport is a good, worthwhile idea that can help ease travel to Newark; I’m not saying it isn’t. But a half-baked proposal that costs too much and is being put forward for purposes of a trade-off likely isn’t the right answer.

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A glimpse inside Calatrava’s costly subway station. (Photo via @WTCProgress)

When The New York Times puts a target in its sights, the Grey Lady goes hard:

In numerous interviews, other architects, academics and builders say that [Santiago] Calatrava is amassing an unusually long list of projects marred by cost overruns, delays and litigation. It is hard to find a Calatrava project that has not been significantly over budget. And complaints abound that he is indifferent to the needs of his clients…

Mr. Calatrava is likely to come under renewed scrutiny in New York as building continues on one of his latest projects, the new PATH train station at ground zero. It is expected to open in 2015 but is six years behind schedule and will cost $4 billion, twice the original budget.

Critics of the project, commissioned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, find the final price tag hard to believe. (In January 2012 an independent audit of the Port Authority concluded that the agency was “a challenged and dysfunctional organization.”) But several executives who have been involved in construction at the World Trade Center site, who did not want to speak on the record because of their relationship with the project, said Mr. Calatrava’s designs were problematic, too, calling for hugely difficult construction, including a vast underground chamber. In addition, they said, he demanded that surrounding buildings house all the station’s mechanical elements, like ventilation, which complicated construction and called for time-consuming coordination.

The Port Authority declined to discuss the cost overruns and issued a one-sentence statement: “Early estimates for the transportation hub were based on conceptual designs and were therefore unrealistic.”

In Calatrava’s Spanish hometown, politicians aren’t as quick to lay the blame for cost overruns on the shoulders of so-called conceptual designs. Ignacio Blanco, a member of the Valencia parliament which has had its fair share of disputes with its native son, says that Calatrava’s designs — upon which cost estimates and funding requests are based — are devoid of necessary detail. “Other architects, they know exactly the door handles they want, and where to buy and at what cost,” he said. “But Calatrava is the opposite. His projects do not have this degree of precision. If you look at the files on the aquarium, which was built by someone else, they are fat. But there are just a couple of pages on the Calatrava projects.”

I’ve been highly critical of the PATH WTC station for years now. It’s a glorified subway station that will cost taxpayers $4 billion. It’s a vanity project developed by a starchitect who has made it about him and his contributions to the New York scene rather than about a cost-controlled transit improvement. The mistakes of PATH and the mistakes of Calatrava should be a lesson to the various New York stakeholders at plans to expand or rebuild Penn Station move forward. This is a mess that didn’t have to be a mess.

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