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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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A grand transit hub or a grand waste of money? (Photo via @WTCProgress)

My thoughts on the Santiago Calatrava-designed PATH World Trade Center Transportation Hub are no secret. It’s a multi-billion-dollar monument to the Spanish architect’s ego that does very little to enhance transit capacity or the aesthetics of the World Trade Center area. As the structure has arisen, it’s lack of visual appeal has become more obvious, and although its completion is a fait accompli, it’s still worth dwelling on the process. In fact, I’ve asked Port Authority, through a FOI request, for information regarding fees paid to Calatrava and his firm.

Meanwhile, in The Post on Sunday, Steve Cuozzo absolutely eviscerated the transportation hub. He doesn’t chart new ground, but his takedown is, to borrow an overused phrase, epic. He writes:

With each passing week, the embarrassing ugliness of this $4 billion boondoggle designed by Santiago Calatrava — a hideous waste of public money — grows plain for all to see. Not everyday-ugly, like a tacky brown tie or dress, but LOL-ugly. What are those spiky “ribs” and “wings” doing next door to 3 World Trade Center and the memorial pools? What happened to the “bird in flight” we were promised?

The elephantine excess won’t be fully realized until the scheduled opening at the end of 2015. But as the dragon slumbers to its feet, enough of it’s reared its head to give a sense of what the finished fiasco will look like: a self-indulgent monstrosity wildly out of proportion to everything around it, and 100% aloof from the World Trade Center’s commercial and commemorative purposes.

Hey, what’s wrong with a train station? Nothing — but today’s 40,000 daily PATH riders make do very well with the current temporary station. And the Hub’s vaunted subway line connections could have been more efficiently achieved with a simple passageway than an “Oculus” longer and taller than Grand Central Terminal’s main hall.

Having seen the parts of the Hub that are already open to the public, I’ve witnessed first-hand what Cuozzo terms “sterile and intimidating.” The floors are solid, slippery marble, and the dominant color is white — not what you’d choose for a New York City subway station bound to attract dirt, debris and all manner of grim from the surrounding environment. It’s a museum to an architect in which practicality was an afterthought if it was even a thought at all.

Cuozzo questions the architectural support for the structure and ponders who will shop in the underground mall. The latter point is less of a concern because New Yorkers and tourists tend to gravitate toward these kinds of shopping centers if the mix of retail is right, but the fact that not one but two under-built transit hubs with high-end retail are opening a block apart from each other at a time when the city desperately needs more space for housing makes me question the spending priorities and long-term planning for the city’s transit agencies.

Ultimately, it’s too late to stop the transit hub, and it will be with us for decades. But it’s a reminder of excess and poor planning. Will we learn anything from this mistake or just be doomed to repeat it, billion-dollar overrun after billion-dollar overrun, while transit capacity concerns go ignored yet again?

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No one in his or her right mind would ever mistake the Port Authority Bus Terminal as a pleasant place to spend any amount of time. It’s dirty and dingy with little in the way of amenities and much in the way of dripping and collapsing ceilings, permanent residents and an overall feeling that it’s best days aren’t just decades in the past but may never have happened at all. The building is an eyesore amidst Midtown Manhattan and somehow manages to shepherd 225,000 per day through its doors. Imagine if it were actually something approaching state of the art.

At some point, the Port Authority will have to figure out how to tear down and rebuild Port Authority without disrupting travel plans. They should get around to advocating for permanent bi-directional bus lanes through the Lincoln Tunnel as well. For now, though, the PA is going to slap $90 million worth of improvements on the Bus Terminal and call it a day — or a Quality of Commute program. The problem is that $90 million in New York City just doesn’t go that far.

In a release on Wednesday, the PA heads announced the new expenditure. “The Port Authority Board of Commissioners today authorized $90 million to a “Quality of Commute’ improvement program for the Port Authority Bus Terminal,” Executed Director Pat Foye and Deputy Executive Director Deborah Gramiccioni said. “The functionally obsolete facility no longer meets the transportation needs of the hundreds of thousands of riders that pass through the terminal every day, and the Port Authority is committed to identifying comprehensive improvements within the context of its existing Capital Plan. This initiative will make interim improvements to the terminal as the agency explores a program to deliver a redeveloped facility.”

The exact details of the investments will be unveiled at a Port Authority board meeting in September, but PA officials let slip some details surrounding the plans. According to Foye, the bus terminal will see an improved heating and air conditioning system, better cellphone and wireless service and a more aggressive outreach program for the homeless New Yorkers who, for better or worse, call the bus terminal home. The bathrooms too may see some upgrades.

Ultimately and unfortunately, it’s insulting to pigs to say this is putting lipstick on a pig. The Port Authority Bus Terminal, simply speaking, is an embarrassment and likely an impediment to more transit service in New York City. People eschew buses because trying to travel through the terminal is a singularly unpleasant experience. But something is better than nothing.

At some point, the Port Authority will have to make some tough decisions with regards to its bus terminal. The agency estimates that it could take 10-15 years and at least $1 billion to replace the thing (though a future replacement could include lucrative air rights and development upward). For now, we get air conditioning and some better cell service. I guess that’s forward progress, but it sure ain’t reinventing something that sorely needs to be reinvented.

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A few updates on some stories I’ve been following:

MTA Reinvention Commission kicks off meetings

Last week, I shared my thoughts on the MTA Reinvention Commission and the august body’s need to focus on overhauling how the MTA works and how the agency does business. Today, the group kicked off their first set of meetings. (You can follow along via webcast.)

So far, the panel has spent a lot of time talking about affordable housing, and I’m growing worried that their focus is wrong. Reinventing the MTA requires asking hard questions and proposing top-to-bottom solutions for streamlining procurement, cutting extremely high capital costs and improving agency operations. It’s not about using the MTA to advance city policy goals. The MTA, I would argue, already does more than anything else for affordable housing than any one agency in the city, and the early framing on policy goals rather than MTA problems bodes ill for this Commission’s future, especially when a largely unfunded $30 billion capital plan looms. Affordable housing, for instance, is an outcome of sound transit policy, and without reinvention such that subways do not cost over $2 billion per mile, the policy goals will remain elusive.

On the bright side, Dana Rubinstein spoke with the Commission’s heads, and they expect results. “I don’t think any of these very busy people, any of these very important and smart people, would be involved in this if they didn’t think that these recommendations would be carried out,” Ray La Hood said to Rubinstein. Hopefully, the recommendations are expansive enough.

amNY: Where is New York’s better bus terminal?

The Port Authority Bus Terminal is low-hanging fruit, but it pays to remember just how sorry a spot it is. In an editorial today, amNew York urges the Port Authority to redevelop the bus terminal. “Midtown Manhattan urgently needs a brand-new, world-class bus station,” and with air rights value at an all-time high, the money to realize this dream — $500 million to $1 billion depending upon the scope of the project — could materialize.

G train shutdown looms as ferry questions remain

When Greenpoint’s India St. ferry stop collapsed earlier this year, everyone in the know knew that city had around four months to fix the dock before the summer shutdown of the G train for Sandy-related repairs. Now, with 11 days to go before the five-week outage, the ferry stop is not yet open, and no one knows when repairs will be complete. Brooklyn politicians are demanding answers, but concrete details are not forthcoming. This is one spot sorely in need of its ferry service and soon.

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