The Port Authority’s $10 Billion Monument to Bus Travel


The west side of Manhattan will likely get a big new Port Authority Bus Terminal, hopefully without demolishing any homes or churches, and the site of the existing bus hub will likely be redeveloped for office towers. There’s just one small question that wasn’t answered at Thursday’s Port Authority board meeting: It’s not clear how it will all happen.

On Tuesday, the Port Authority announced a ceasefire with Manhattan elected officials who threatened to stop a planning process they said was jumping to conclusions. The pols got a promise from the Port Authority to play nice and look at all the options, but there probably won’t be a wholesale rethinking of cross-Hudson travel, which is heavily reliant on commuter buses going to and from a super-size West Side bus terminal.

It might be possible to reduce the number of buses by 10 or 20 percent, according to a Port Authority study released on Thursday, and satellite facilities could be examined for New Jersey, but those hoping to shift most Garden State commuters to rail, like their Westchester or Long Island counterparts, will be left disappointed.

The reason is that rail service in New Jersey is sparser, and buses play a starring role, particularly in Hudson and Bergen counties, said Lou Venech, the Port Authority’s manager of trans-regional policy. Any gains in rail capacity from a future Gateway tunnel won’t reduce demand for buses. “Growth in the existing rail markets is expected to absorb most of the additional capacity,” he said. “It would not obviate the need for a new bus terminal.”

A 7 train extension with a satellite bus terminal in Secaucus could cut down on the number of buses going to the West Side, but the multibillion-dollar project, last pushed by the Bloomberg administration and spurned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, is unlikely to be built. “When I last checked [it] had no political support in the city or state of New York, and certainly no funding,” said Chair John Degnan.

Even if some existing bus commuters could be shifted to rail, there is a seemingly inexhaustible demand for trans-Hudson bus travel. “There is unmet demand in the system now,” Venech said, noting that the Port Authority Bus Terminal is already at capacity. “New Jersey Transit and other bus carriers would add more bus service to the terminal now, if it were possible.”

So, the Port Authority is back where it started, focused on improving the commuter bus system. Changes could include staging facilities in New Jersey, adding more double-deck buses, sending more buses through the Holland Tunnel, or an additional inbound rush-hour bus lane approaching the Lincoln Tunnel. (There was no mention of an afternoon bus lane, long a goal of transportation advocates.)

The Port Authority is also interested in eventually using automated technology to improve dispatching and to “platoon” buses as they approach Manhattan, squeezing even more capacity out of an already-jammed bus lane.

These are good ideas, but they aren’t dramatic changes to how we get across the Hudson River. What travelers will notice most, of course, will be the shiny new bus terminal on the West Side, and today’s release of five entries in the Port Authority’s design competition gives an idea of what it could look like.

Most of the concepts would build a new bus terminal on land already owned by the Port Authority, including above Lincoln Tunnel ramps west of Ninth Avenue. (The most expensive of the concepts would build an underground terminal beneath the existing one; another moves it to the Javits Center, with an elevated walkway stretching all the way to Eighth Avenue.)

Many of the proposals include a 7 train station at Tenth Avenue, which the Bloomberg administration dropped to save money, and underground passageways to connect to the Eighth Avenue subway. The Port Authority estimates that moving the terminal to Ninth Avenue could add up to seven minutes each way for commuters walking to Times Square and the rest of Midtown.

The details of what the bus terminal will look like, and even where it will be located, are not set in stone. Port officials said they expect the competition entries, along with previous concepts developed by the Port Authority, to inform the final result. There’s also the question of how much it will cost, with most of the Port Authority’s own estimates north of $10 billion.

Either way, the Port Authority has promised extensive public consultation and outreach, even if it wasn’t willing to say when that will happen or what form it might take.

“We are not going to come up with a proposal and have them react to it,” Degnan said at a press conference after the meeting. “We’ll take as much time as it takes to make sure everybody is properly included in the process.”