How the West Side Was Won: Will Port Authority Truce Yield a Better Bus Terminal?

New Jersey commuter buses arriving at the Port Authority Bus Terminal
New Jersey commuter buses arriving at the Port Authority Bus Terminal

After a standoff lasting months, elected officials and the Port Authority announced a peace accord yesterday over plans to replace the authority’s aging West Side bus terminal. The Port Authority has promised to include local representatives and the public as it studies all potential sites for a new terminal, backing away (for now) from its previous goal of building a replacement west of Ninth Avenue.

Politicians had spent all summer blasting the bi-state body for an insular process that, they said, prematurely jumped to conclusions about relocating Manhattan’s second-busiest transit hub. While hitting "reset" could lead to a more transparent process, there’s no guarantee it will include the large-scale thinking needed to find a better way of handling the crushing cross-Hudson commute.

On a typical weekday, 7,800 buses jam the Port Authority Bus Terminal with 232,000 passengers, a volume surpassed by only Penn Station. The terminal, already beyond capacity during rush hours, is expecting a 35 to 51 percent increase in passengers by 2040. Adding insult to injury, the Port Authority says the thick concrete slabs in the terminal’s south wing, opened in 1950, will be too old to safely carry buses within 25 years.

The Port Authority began examining fixes in 2013 with a study dubbed the "Midtown Bus Master Plan." There had already been attempts over the years to revamp the bus terminal: a 2008 plan to build a skyscraper atop an expanded terminal fell prey to the recession, while a bus garage long sought by Hell’s Kitchen residents remained unfunded. Ultimately, the Port approved a $90 million face-lift in 2014, while focusing long-term on replacing the facility altogether.

That’s when, according to the West Side officials, things started to fall apart, as Port Authority staff and consultants worked for nearly two years without meeting the public, elected officials, or outside experts.

"It’s been a lot of, I guess you could say, pre-planning process," said Richard Barone, vice president for transportation at the Regional Plan Association. "There’s no requirement for them to meet with all the stakeholders.… That’s pretty much how the Port Authority operates, until they’re forced by the process to engage."

After months of behind-the-scenes work, the Port Authority dropped a bomb at its March 2015 board meeting, unveiling five concepts to replace the bus terminal. Most of the five options would require at least $10 billion and 15 years to construct, well above the $1 billion estimate Port officials had been throwing around just months before. Commissioners, left with sticker shock, couldn’t settle on a path forward.

"We are so out of our league," Commissioner David S. Steiner said at that September’s board meeting. "We don’t know what we’re doing.… We’re going to make the wrong decision, as we’ve done before, because we don’t know what we’re talking about."

Less than a month later, the board recommended building a new terminal west of Ninth Avenue, likely including redevelopment of the existing bus terminal site. The agreement had two additions: A "Trans-Hudson Commuting Capacity Study" would assess all modes of travel across the river, while an "International Design and Deliverability Competition" would entice major design and engineering firms to flesh out the details with a $1 million prize.

One of the Port Authority's concepts that would demolish the church and some nearby buildings for a new terminal (in blue between Ninth and Tenth avenues)
One of the Port Authority's concepts that would demolish the church and some nearby buildings for a new terminal (in blue between Ninth and Tenth avenues)
Port Authority

This left the door open to study a satellite bus terminal in New Jersey, a popular idea among some New Yorkers that did not sit well with many Garden State commissioners and elected officials, who wanted to preserve a one-seat ride into Manhattan for their constituents.

In March, the board solved the problem with some old-fashioned horse-trading. Chair John Degnan, a proponent of building a new bus terminal, dropped his opposition to funding a rehab of LaGuardia Airport. In exchange, the board agreed to fund the bus terminal, "with the understanding that no bus terminal will be built in New Jersey."

As this process unfolded, Hell’s Kitchen locals say they were reading about the plan to replace the bus terminal in the news. "We heard about it when everybody else did," Tiffany Triplett Henkel, pastor at Metro Baptist Church, told the Voice. The congregation, located on 40th Street just west of Ninth Avenue, would be bulldozed in two of the five bus terminal concepts. "Certainly, the Port Authority did not contact us ever to say, 'Hey, we’re exploring some things,' " Henkel said.

"All the stakeholders from New York, believe me, have not been involved in this process," Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said. "It’s bad planning, that’s what it is."

The only official venue for public comment while the board was making its decisions was to fill out an online survey or to submit testimony during the public session of Port Authority board meetings. (The Port Authority declined interview requests from the Voice and did not answer questions about its planning process for a new bus terminal.)

"They made decisions based on private discussions with God knows who," said Congressman Jerrold Nadler. "They had skipped the process. That’s when we realized it had gone way off the rails."

Assembly Member Richard Gottfried and State Senator Brad Hoylman, along with Community Board 4, convinced Port Authority staff to give a presentation and take questions at a community meeting hosted at Metro Baptist Church on April 18. Hundreds of nervous West Siders showed up, with eminent domain topping their list of concerns. The Port Authority’s conceptual plans could displace not only the church, according to a community board presentation at the meeting, but also a Head Start program, a food pantry, 30 businesses, and up to 283 apartments.

Transportation advocates were afraid that a botched process could kill a needed transit upgrade. Days after the April town hall, Tri-State Transportation Campaign began hosting meetings to bring elected officials and local groups around the same table as planning advocates, including RPA and the Municipal Art Society. The group developed some broad principles about what a planning process for a new bus terminal should look like, but it didn’t address local eminent domain concerns and most participants never officially adopted them.

"Understandably, Tri-State is trying to come up with some solutions," Brewer said. "The elected officials want the process to start over."

That’s when the quarrel spilled out into public view. The elected officials, backed by the de Blasio administration, came out against the Port Authority in the days before its July board meeting, demanding the Port drop its design competition and start a public process to evaluate alternatives.

The Port Authority was playing defense. "I’m not Robert Moses. I don’t think anybody on this board wants to be Robert Moses," Degnan said at the meeting. The next month, the Port Authority invited elected officials to meet with teams in the design competition. The pols refused to attend, again slamming what they described as a "prejudicial process."

The logjam finally broke at a meeting last Friday. The subsequent joint statement says the Port Authority will conclude the design competition, but its results, to be released at tomorrow’s board meeting, seem to carry less weight than elected officials had feared. Going forward, the Port will include "extensive public and stakeholder input, including regular meetings with city and state officials" as it develops a plan for the bus terminal. In a statement, Nadler said he was "thrilled" with the détente.

"It’s a meeting that we should’ve had a long time ago," said Councilmember Corey Johnson. "I think everyone felt positive coming out of the meeting."

Despite the happy talk, there are lots of unanswered questions.

The Port Authority only committed to "public meetings in the future," without much detail about what the public consultation will look like, other than saying that it "will comply with expected federal, state, and local environmental review and regulatory processes."

Johnson called on the Port Authority to release the analysis it used to whittle its options down to the five concepts floated in March of last year. A description of this process was included in materials for the design competition, but experts trying to look under the hood have been left wanting for technical details.

Then there’s the Trans-Hudson Commuting Capacity Study, also set to be released tomorrow. "There’s a lot of people putting a lot of stock in that study, but there’s a question if it’s the comprehensive work you want it to be," Barone said. "The proof is going to be in the pudding."

Unidentified sources tell Politico the study will revive discussion of a 7 train extension to Secaucus, with a satellite bus terminal in New Jersey. Even without layering a new subway extension on top of planning for the bus terminal, there are already tens of billions of dollars worth of infrastructure upgrades planned, but not much big-picture thinking about how to handle travel across the Hudson River.

"As the borough president, I sit in Penn Station meetings, I sit in Moynihan Station meetings, I sit in Gateway tunnel meetings, I sit in bus station meetings. But I don’t see the coordination," Brewer said. "Each has been presented in isolation."

Finally, there’s the question of eminent domain and redevelopment on the West Side. "We’re still in that potential target zone,” Metro Baptist Church’s Henkel said. If the bus terminal is moved to a new location, the existing site on Eighth Avenue is ripe for high-rise development, which could both help finance the new terminal and raise hackles about the role of real estate interests in determining the final plan.

"There’s no chance that everybody is going to come out and be one-hundred percent happy with the outcome," Henkel said. "But if we can have a process that we feel is open and accessible for people to engage in, that certainly makes it easier to swallow the final result."

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