Readers Write: Virus jeopardizes Port Authority master plan

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NY/NJ PORT AUTHORITY CHAIRMAN RICHARD COTTON AND CHICKEN LITTLE

Port Authority of New York & New Jersey Executive Director Rick Cotton was less than candid when he said that “the Port Authority has asked Congress for a $3 billion bailout to make up for revenue losses and to allow its ambitious capital construction plan to continue. If the funding isn’t approved, except for projects under construction, such as Terminal One at Newark and the building of new terminals at LaGuardia airports, the rest are on the chopping block.”

He went on to say that the pandemic has endangered the agency’s blueprint for the future.

“The historic $37 billion capital plan will be revised. We will revise the scope and schedule of every other major project. Projects to rebuild and expand the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Midtown Manhattan, extend the PATH line to Newark Airport, expand PATH stations to run longer trains and replace Newark airport’s aging monorail with a new AirTrain could be in jeopardy,”

What he neglected to mention was that two of his projects already were in jeopardy long before COVID-19.

In 2014, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the cost for the LaGuardia Air Train was $450 million with a completion date of 2019. The Port Authority has budgeted $2.05 billion of funding within the $37 billion 2017 – 2026 Ten Year Capital Plan for the LaGuardia Air Train. This doesn’t include several hundred million more which is necessary to relocate the NYC Transit Casey Stangel Bus Depot. There is no funding within the MTA $51 billion 2020 – 2024 to pay for this cost. The Federal Aviation Administration will not issue a environmental NEPA finding until 2021. Who can predict the final cost and completion date?

There was always only $3.5 billion allocated toward the $10 billion new Port Authority Midtown Manhattan Bus Terminal. This project has carried a $6.5 billion shortfall for years. Earlier this year, the Port Authority abandoned plans to build a new 42nd Street Bus Terminal using eminent domain to acquire adjacent property, but instead proposed building a new terminal 100 percent within the existing foot print. This still may never happen.

The approved Port Authority 2017 – 2026 Ten Year $37 billion Capital Plan provided only $3.5 billion toward construction of the new $10 billion 42nd Street PA Bus Terminal. Initiation of another planning study for $70 million was just the first down payment. How many more years will it take to complete this study, environmental review process, preliminary along with final design and engineering?

It is wishful thinking that the Port Authority can count on $6.5 billion in future federal funding to make up the difference. Don’t be surprised in waiting until the next Port Authority ten-year 2027 – 2036 Capital Plan before a complete $10 billion or more funding package is in place. This is necessary to support awarding construction contracts.

Remember that the project has never advanced beyond the environmental review process. There has never been a final determination to rebuild at the existing site or relocate to the Javits Convention Center. Nobody knows if the Port Authority has talked to the Federal Transit Administration about potential funding down the road. No one can predict the final cost and completion date.

In December, Cuomo celebrated the $1.5 billion Javits Convention Center expansion being on the path to completion on time and within budget. One of the two concepts proposed by the Port Authority is to build a new bus facility under the Javits Convention Center. This was previously proposed by the New York Regional Planning Association. It would replace the existing 42nd Street Bus Terminal. This would have an adverse impact on the ongoing $1.5 billion new improvements currently under way.

Costs for construction modifications to lower levels of the existing Javits Convention Center and a new ventilation system to accommodate NJ Transit and intercity buses could increase overall costs by a billion or more above the current $10 billion. The subway connections at this location, which commuters count on, are not as plentiful as what is available at the present Port Authority Bus Terminal location. How much would it cost to extend the Lincoln Tunnel & modify the West Side Highway to build at this location? How could the Javits facility be modified to accommodate larger buses, space for riders to wait by departure gates and be in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act?

Cotton reminds me of Chicken Little who said “the sky is falling.”
(Larry Penner — transportation advocate, historian and writer who previously worked 31 years for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions in capital projects and programs for the MTA, NYC Transit bus and subway, Staten Island Rail Road, Long Island and Metro North Rail Roads, MTA Bus, New Jersey Transit along with 30 other transit agencies in NY & NJ).

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