Archive for PANYNJ

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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A less-than-spectacular view from above. (Photo via WTC Progress on Facebook)

As long-time readers (or even recent converts to the site) know, I am not a particularly big fan of the Port Authority’s PATH Hub at the World Trade Center site. It’s a monument to an architect and a mall ahead of a transit center. Already, what’s opened has been both overwhelming and less than impressive with narrow staircases and insufficient access to the platforms. As form and function pull at a limited pool of dollars, the PATH Hub is the epicenter for the debate.

Yesterday, The Atlantic’s CityLab published a piece of mine on that very topic. It’s the culmination of years of railing against the price tag and design of the PATH Hub. I’m not against great design for transit, but as it does at Grand Central, the design should flow from the function. Santiago Calatrava’s monstrosity does just the opposite as form overwhelms function.

An excerpt:

From a practical perspective, where Grand Central seamlessly integrates commuters with its purpose as a rail depot, the Port Authority’s new hub fails its customers, the PATH-riding public. One platform is already completed, and its design flaws are obvious. Staircases are too narrow to accommodate the morning crowds who come streaming out of the trains from Hoboken, Jersey City, and beyond, while the narrow platforms quickly fill with irate commuters. Anyone trying to catch a train back to the Garden State risks a stampede. The marble, bright and sterile, picks up any spill, and a drop of water creates dangerously slippery conditions until a Port Authority janitor scurries out of some unseen door, mop in hand. Passenger flow and comfort, two of the most important elements of terminal design, seem to be an afterthought. The PATH Hub is shaping up to be an example of design divorced from purpose.

The price tag too creates consternation among those fighting for sparse transit dollars. For $4 billion, the Port Authority could have extended PATH to Brooklyn, built a one-seat ride from Lower Manhattan to JFK Airport or helped cover the cost overruns from the dearly departed ARC Tunnel. For $4 billion, the MTA could build out most, if not all, of another phase of the Second Avenue subway or the lost 7 line station at 41st Street and 10th Avenue five times over. At a time with real needs for regional transportation improvements, a $4 billion missed opportunity stings….

In his writings and lectures on “Why Architecture Matters,” the architectural critic Paul Goldberger writes: “When architecture is art, it does not escape the obligation to be practical, and its practical shortcomings should not be forgiven.” Politicians choose architects who create buildings with visual designs that leave a mark in the public memory. For an occasional visitor to Lower Manhattan, Calatrava’s building is a sight to see, but for an occasional PATH rider, Caltrava’s platforms and staircases are a reminder that transit users in the eyes of celebrity crafters are afterthoughts. The riders don’t post photos to Instagram and swoon over a stegosaurus-like structure rising out of the ashes of the Twin Towers; they grumble about narrow staircases and shoddy construction.

Please do go read the full piece at CityLab. I try to end it on an upbeat note. We as a society used to design great buildings that were also functional. If we try hard enough and focus properly, I’m sure we can do it again.

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Is this a worthwhile use of Port Authority money?

If most transit-minded folk in the Tri-State area had $1.5 billion to spend, an extension of the PATH train to Newark Airport wouldn’t be high on the list of priorities. With that money, most people would add to the pot for a new trans-Hudson rail tunnel, take a look at investing in another phase of the Second Ave. Subway, explore a subway extension to Laguardia Airport, begin the Triboro RX line or look to one of any number of other projects. The Port Authority of course chose the airport extension.

Now, it’s not much of a surprise that the Port Authority is building out this PATH extension. It does serve some useful function as it provides a more direct connection to Newark Airport for anyone traveling by public transit from Brooklyn, Lower Manhattan, and, more importantly, Jersey City and Hoboken. We’ve also heard of interest in this project for the past three or four years, most recently as an odd quid-pro-quo given by New Jersey to United Airlines in exchange for direct flights to Atlantic City.

As the ball has slowly rolled forward on this project, the costs have gone up. In 2004, PA documents projected a $500 million cost. When Gov. Chris Christie first pushed this extension, it was predicted to carry a price tag of $1 billion. A few months later, some reports had total costs estimated between $2-$4 billion. Now, the Port Authority is aiming to spend $1.5 billion and construct this at-grade extension over mostly preexisting right-of-way in five years starting in 2018, according to a report from Why construction will take so long is anyone’s guess.

As follow-up, Steve Strunsky asked if the project is worth it. That’s a question I’ve pondered for a while, and Strunsky writes:

“It’s long overdue,” said John Degnan, the chairman of the Port Authority, who pointed to a 2012 report in favor of the project by the Regional Plan Association, a Manhattan-based transportation research organization. Degnan, who became chairman in July, said he could not address the increase in the extension’s projected cost since 2004.

NJ Transit already provides direct service between Manhattan — by way of New York’s Pennsylvania Station in Midtown — and Newark’s AirTrain station, which means the PATH extension would be largely redundant, said Steve Carrellas, a New Jersey spokesman for the National Motorists Association.

“If it’s redundant, what’s the need?” said Carrellas, adding that the PATH system is already subsidized by Port Authority toll payers. Then again, Carrellas added, since Newark airport generates revenue for the agency, supporting it with a PATH stop could also be considered sound financial policy. Travelers can now get to the airport by train from Lower Manhattan as well. But it requires taking a PATH train from the World Trade Center to Newark Penn Station, then transferring to an NJ Transit train from there, which could discourage travelers burdened by luggage or tight schedules, said Wendy Pollack, a spokeswoman for the Regional Plan Association.

Strunsky’s piece unfortunately isn’t the strongest. It’s easy to find transit advocates who aren’t also representing motorists and truckers who don’t want to pay tolls to support rail to speak out against this project, but with the RPA’s imprimatur, it has the aura of invincibility. Still, it is a boondoggle that duplicates preexisting service and, as currently planned, doesn’t get people any closer to the airport than an AirTrain station.

I hear the arguments in favor of this plan and recognize it has some benefit to areas that are undergoing rapid growth. But I think you have to ask if it’s worth it considering preexisting service to Newark and other, more pressing transit demands in the region. Why has the Port Authority latched onto this one? Because it has a champion in Trenton. If not for turf battles between the PA and the MTA, they should spend this money on Laguardia access. If PATH can go straight to the Newark terminals and bypass the painfully slow Newark Airtrain — which it isn’t currently projected to do — this could be an acceptable project for reasonable dollars. But it costs too much and doesn’t solve the Newark Airport access issues. Simply put, it shouldn’t be at the top of any list for spending priorities.

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A staircase most grand. (Via @WTCProgress)

It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of the World Trade Center PATH Hub. Due to a variety of factors, the Port Authority is spending an absurd amount of money to design what has repeatedly been called an iconic train station — which happens to be across the street from another supposedly iconic train station — and serves only a subway stop for PATH. The WTC Hub isn’t akin to Grand Central; there is no connection north, south or east, and it serves 35,000 passengers per day, fewer than Jay St.-Metrotech or the 8th Ave. 14th St. station. And, at a time when the need to expand trans-Hudson capacity has never been more evident, the price tag for a station that does nothing to address the region’s needs has ballooned toward $4 billion. It is, in a word, a boondoggle.

Eventually, when the station finally opens and passengers traverse the underground mall, the rebuilt World Trade Center area, and the marble-covered halls of Santiago Calatrava’s station, the focus on this project’s flaws may recede. It may even become that iconic image of Lower Manhattan its promoters had hoped it would become oh so many years ago. But we will still feel its impact every time we try to get to Laguardia Airport or sigh in frustration at another New Jersey Transit or Amtrak delay caused by congestion in the one rail tunnel connecting Manhattan to the rest of the world. Priorities will shift, and the specter of the stegosaurus will loom large.

Elliot Brown of The Wall Street Journal has penned what is, to date, the definitive work on the issues plaguing the transit hub. It includes honest assessments on the costs and construction problems and portends a future of cautious design (and perhaps capacity-focused projects rather than buildings more akin to vanity affairs). “Did you need to build the $3.7 billion transportation hub to achieve the meaningfulness of the World Trade Center redevelopment?” Scott Rechler, the Port Authority’s vice chair, wondered. “In hindsight, I don’t know if I would have come to that conclusion.”

I’d urge you to read Brown’s full story. He delves into every aspect of the project — including the Port Authority’s wish, overruled by then-Gov. George Pataki, to save around $500 million by shutting down the 1 line south of Chambers St. for indeterminate length of time to effect repairs and rebuild the Cortlandt St. station. I’ll excerpt some key parts as Brown traces the history of a hub that was once to cost $1.5-$2 billion and open nearly seven years ago:

An analysis of federal oversight reports viewed by The Wall Street Journal and interviews with current and former officials show a project sunk in a morass of politics and government. Those redesigning the World Trade Center—destroyed by terrorists in 2001—were besieged by demands from various agencies and officials, and “the answer was never, ‘No,’ ” said Christopher Ward, executive director from 2008 to 2011 of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the project’s builder.

Why that happened is more difficult to untangle. The Port Authority, run jointly by the two states, has long been known for political infighting. City, state and federal agencies, as well as real-estate developer Larry Silverstein, also joined in. In public and private clashes, they each pushed to include their own ideas, making the site’s design ever more complex, former project officials said. These disputes added significant delays and costs to the transit station, which serves as a backbone to the bigger 16-acre redevelopment site, connecting the World Trade Center’s four planned office towers, underground retail space and the 9/11 museum, the officials said and oversight reports show…

The high cost has been attributed by many public officials to its ornate and complex design by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. His plans proved far more difficult to build than anticipated, the Port Authority has said, requiring, for example, the manufacture of enormous steel spans overseas. Even daily maintenance will be costly. A recently opened hallway has white marble floors where workers remove scuff marks with sponges on sticks. Mr. Calatrava, through a spokesman, declined to comment.

But current and former officials who worked on the project, a terminal for the PATH commuter rail system, said in interviews they believed demands, disagreements and poor coordination among the many parties working on the World Trade Center site spurred hundreds of millions of dollars in overruns.

The special requests and demands break down as follows:

  • Michael Bloomberg wanted the memorial plaza open by the 10th Anniversary of the attacks. Doing so added at least $100 million to the budget as “a large swath of the underground terminal below the plaza had to be built without use of cranes or other large equipment. Workers had to move materials by hand.”
  • The decision to maintain 1 train service through the site and build a supported box added another $300-$500 million.
  • Complex underground connections added another $140 million to the price tag.

We don’t know how much Calatrava himself is getting for his design and engineering work. The Port Authority has, so far, yet to respond to Freedom of Information requests I’ve filed regarding these amounts. But it’s not an insubstantial amount, and, as Brown notes, upkeep costs for this fanciful subway stop will be plentiful.

So ultimately, we have a monument to Lower Manhattan for $4 billion and 35,000 passengers. We don’t have modernized airports or convenient ways to get there. We have transit capacity needs that go unfulfilled, and we have recognition that the WTC PATH Hub became more unmanageable than it should have. Let’s not repeat these mistakes in the future.

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Public transit subsidies are always a rather thorny issue when it comes to politics. There’s a compelling argument to be made that public transit should be subsidized to some degree or other as it allows people who can’t afford to live in downtown/center city areas relatively cheap access to job and cultural centers as well as other social services. There’s also an argument to be made that transit users should cover the operations and capital costs of the system, but until the nation’s drivers start footing all the bills for road maintenance and expansion, I have a tougher time buying into that argument.

In New York city, after years of divestment by state and city officials, riders carry most of the burden of their subway system. New York City Transit still enjoys the benefits of the MTA, but subway riders foot around two-thirds of the cost of a subway ride these days. Based on recent studies, in fact, the per-passenger subsidy is around $1. As far as American transit systems go, that’s a tiny subsidy, and we need look no further than our own city to find a transit network that seems to bleed money.

As Business Week explored recently, the Port Authority’s PATH system is woefully inefficient. PATH, noted the magazine, is more expensive than any comparable system and shouldn’t even be compared to Transit’s subway network. According to recent studies, the per-passenger cost of a PATH ride to Port Authority is $8.45, and the average fare of just under $2 doesn’t even cover a quarter of these costs. The New York City subway on the other hand relies on subsidies of around $1.11.

Business Week tried to explore why these cost discrepancies are so pronounced. As Port Authority auditors and watchdogs grow increasingly wary of the unruly agency, the money PATH is bleeding is coming under increased scrutiny. Martin Z. Braun reports:

The agency faces challenges across its portfolio of operations. Spending on policing has doubled since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and now consumes almost a quarter of the agency’s operating budget, Bloomberg News reported in June. Last year, its marine terminals lost 2 percentage points of market share. PATH has been a financial millstone around the Port Authority’s neck since it took over the bankrupt Hudson & Manhattan railroad in a 1962 trade between New Jersey Governor Richard Hughes and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. In exchange for getting the Port Authority to take over the H&M Hudson Tubes, as the rail line was known at the time, Hughes allowed Rockefeller to use the Port Authority to develop the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan…

While public officials and transportation analysts have pointed to the railroad’s low fares and its lack of state and federal aid to explain its strained finances, less attention has been paid to expenses. The 2012 national transit data include the impact of Hurricane Sandy, which struck Oct. 29 and knocked out PATH service. Even so, PATH’s cost per hour the year before was also higher than the New York subway system’s, by about two-and-a-half times. Federal Railroad Administration regulations, higher maintenance costs and round-the-clock service have boosted spending compared with other transit systems, Port Authority officials say.

A major difference between PATH and the New York subway system is that the trans-Hudson rail is regulated by the FRA while the Federal Transit Administration oversees the subway. The FRA imposes stricter safety standards and labor requirements, imposing higher costs, Port Authority officials said. Before each run, PATH workers must test a train’s air brakes, signals and acceleration, Mike Marino, PATH’s deputy director, said in a telephone interview. When a train gets to its terminus, workers repeat the test. In addition, every 90 days all of PATH’s rail cars undergo a three-day inspection at a facility in Harrison, New Jersey. Brakes, lights, communications, heating and air conditioning, signals and odometers are all checked, Marino said. “It’s a very intense inspection on every piece of rolling stock,” he said.

According to Business Week, PATH has tried to lobby for a move to the FTA rather than the FRA, but the FRA has resisted the switch as PATH “runs parallel to high-speed trains operated by NJ Transit, Amtrak and freight-line CSX Corp.”

The real question is what comes next. New Jersey officials seem keen to dump PATH on the MTA, but that wouldn’t solve the cost problem. It’s not clear that New York would accept sole responsibility for a bi-state rail system, and without the FTA assuming oversight, the MTA wouldn’t readily embrace taking on a money-losing proposition that’s committed to an unnecessary multi-billion-dollar Newark Airport extension.

New Jersey Transit too remains a possible destination, but that could lead to service reductions — a scary thought for a system that has helped drive renaissance efforts in Jersey City and Hoboken. New Jersey politicians do not view an NJT merger as a solution either. This too seems simpy to shift the problem from one agency to another.

PATH’s cost issue is clearly not sustainable, but it can operate with some level of subsidy. The question now focuses around how to reduce that subsidy without decreasing service or significantly upping fares. Anyone have any brilliant ideas?

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