Back in the mid-1990s, when the Port Authority opened the Newark AirTrain, it was widely viewed as a mess of a project. Trying to buy a customized product from a less-successful company, the Port Authority spent $354 million in mid-1990s dollars on the slow and hulking system with tiny cars and generally not enough capacity they have today. What they didn’t say at the time was that the design life of the system was 25 years, and well, wouldn’t you know, but time flies. That 25 years is almost up, and without a planning process that begins now, the PA will shoot past that deadline with no replacement in sight.
So you would think that the Port Authority would take this opportunity to right a wrong. Perhaps they could double down on Gov. Christie’s pet project — perhaps spurred on by corrupt dealings with United Airlines — and extend the PATH not just to the EWR Amtrak/New Jersey Transit stop but all the way to the airport terminals. Perhaps they’ll learn from the 1990s and not sink untold millions into a project that winds up over budget and years delayed. Or perhaps they already want to spend $70 million on design and technical consultants alone.
In materials released in advance of Thursday’s Port Authority board meeting, the agency unveiled its intentions to do just that. The documents contain a planning authorization for the AirTrain replacement, and the initial expenditures are significant. The PA plans to spend $30 million on technical consultants and $40 million on planning consultants. To cover the latter costs, the Port Authority is going to request permission from the FAA to use Passenger Facility Charges. And what, you may wonder, will they get for their $70 million? Straight from the horse’s mouth:
Currently, AirTrain experiences crowding issues, because demand exceeds capacity during peak periods and weather-induced delays. Although substantial investment has been made to maintain current operations, such investment has not extended the 25-year design life of the system, nor has it expanded capacity.
The proposed planning work would support alternative analysis, conceptual layouts, environmental review, cost estimates, scheduling, financing needs and funding alternatives for the replacement of AirTrain and coordination with other short-term and long-term development at EWR, including the replacement of Terminal A. Professional services would be required to support the planning effort via task orders, through the selection of a contractor(s) to replace the system, at an estimated amount of $30 million. The consultant to support the planning effort for the replacement of the AirTrain system would be retained via a publicly advertised Request for Proposals process, with award to the highest-rated proposer. The consultant contract also would include additional tasks to support the oversight and implementation of the replacement of the AirTrain system through project completion, which would be at an additional cost and subject to future authorization.
Despite a 2011 report that indicated the AirTrain represented a challenge for Newark Airport’s crowds, the Port Authority didn’t include replacement requests in its current $27-billion, 10-year capital plan. Rather, they’re going to spend at least $1-$1.5 billion on a PATH extension and, I’d imagine, at least another half a billion on the AirTrain replacement. At a time when the region is in bad need of a trans-Hudson tunnel and when New York’s Gov. Cuomo wants to spend another billion dollars on a LaGuardia AirTrain, it may be time to step back and consider exactly what we’re getting for our dollars. Does anyone really trust the Port Authority to invest wisely — besides, that is, the consultants who see dollar signs on the horizon?