As the debate rages over replacing the overcapacity Port Authority Bus Terminal, interstate bus operators, running to Washington, Boston, Philadelphia and points beyond, want to make sure that a newer, bigger terminal has room for them, too.
Buses remain one of the Northeast Corridor’s workhorses, said Prof. Joseph Schwieterman, director of DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development. There is no national collection of ridership data, he said, “but we estimate it’s around 61 million a year. That’s about twice the size of Amtrak. So it’s big.”
After a couple flat years caused by riders lured into private cars by cheap gas, the industry is poised for growth. According to the latest annual outlook from Schwieterman and his team, gas prices and the cost of flying are both forecast to rise, making the bus a more attractive option.
That means more passengers, and more buses loading and unloading on Manhattan streets.
Megabus typically schedules 80 trips a day from its curbside location across from the Javits Center on 34th Street, said Bryony Chamberlain, the company’s director of operations, with up to 120 trips moving 11,000 people a day on the busiest holidays. BoltBus operates a block away on 33rd Street.
In other cities, such as Washington and Boston, bus companies are required to operate from garages on top of rail terminals. In New York, the Port Authority Bus Terminal is so full, mostly with New Jersey commuter buses, that there’s little choice but to operate from the street.
“I try to get into the bus terminals if there’s space, but there’s a lot of ‘if’s’ in there,” Chamberlain said, adding that she has to balance the customer amenities that come with a terminal, like protection from the elements, with the cost each terminal charges for access. “I want to give the customers the best service at the cheapest price, and that really depends on the city.”
Companies already inside the Port Authority Bus Terminal, like BoltBus parent company Greyhound, say they need a new facility, too. “I think for everybody in the industry, that’s not a debate,” said Mike Fleischhauer, Greyhound’s regional vice president.
The best way to have an efficient bus terminal, he said, is to put intercity and commuter buses in the same building. “Commuter service operates maybe about five hours a day,” Fleischhauer said. “What are you going to do with a separate building the rest of the day? What are you going to do on the weekend, or on the holidays?”
So far, the Port Authority has not committed to building a combined terminal, and is considering options that could move intercity buses to a facility in an undisclosed separate location. In reality, that could mean kicking them to the curb.
Yet there are few curbside spaces that make sense for intercity buses. Finding space close to transit is critical, said BoltBus operations director Bill Revere, since 70 percent of his passengers use transit to get to or from the bus.
As Hudson Yards develops, the bus operators are trying to find alternatives, but locations suggested by the Department of Transportation are in already-crowded areas, like Chinatown and Seventh Avenue in Chelsea, that don’t want more on-street bus operations in the neighborhood.
Today’s predicament echoes the mid-century problems that led to construction of the Port Authority Bus Terminal in the first place, as chronicled by Jameson Doig in Empire on the Hudson, his history of the bi-state authority.
Faced with a growing number of buses bound for curbsides and small terminals throughout Midtown, the city enacted a ban on private bus terminals in a bid to tame congestion and centralize operators in the new Port Authority terminal.
Now, with the Port Authority filled to the brim, history is having unintended consequences. Chamberlain said Megabus had considered operating out of a parking lot on Eighth Avenue instead of using the curb, but found that city zoning law prohibited its use as a bus terminal. Now, she said, her company pays the city $35,000 a year to use 34th Street.
While New Jersey might see Manhattan congestion as a New York problem, and Governor Andrew Cuomo reportedly called the bus terminal a “New Jersey project,” the bus terminal will only happen if both states work together. So far, they haven’t: only a third of the project is funded in the Port Authority’s draft capital plan.
“People who are coming through the Port Authority generate tax revenue for the city and state of New York, which I’m not sure any of the elected officials recognize,” said Mitchell Moss, director of New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy. “It’s not just about buses. It’s about the economic vitality of the city.”