New York

Our Region Is Crumbling, But At Least We’ll Have Two Useless, Expensive Airport Trains

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Today, the Port Authority board approved a five-year, $32 billion capital spending program. The mantra from supporters of the plan, which reflects the questionable transportation priorities of Governors Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie, was simple: it’s not perfect — hell, it might be seriously flawed — but it’s what we’ve got.

What we’ve got, however, throws billions of dollars at shiny projects with little value to the region’s transportation network, while leaving commuters stuck with underfunded, overcrowded PATH trains and bus terminals.

“We cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” said Gary LaBarbera of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York. “Let’s get the shovels in the ground and let’s build now.”

The problem with plowing ahead, which is what Port Authority commissioners unanimously did today, is that the entire process is so beholden to the governors who actually run the show at the bi-state agency that critical transportation needs are going unfunded.

“We’re not asking for perfect. But what we have is so far off from meeting the region’s needs,” Janna Chernetz, New Jersey director for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, told the Voice. “We can do better.”

“In a constrained environment in which money is not limitless, there are real choices that have to be made,” said New Jersey Assembly transportation committee chair, and Democratic gubernatorial candidate, John Wisniewski. He urged commissioners to buck the governors who appointed them and force the executives to accept or veto a capital plan that doesn’t include their agreed-upon pet projects. “Commissioners have to recognize the potential for gubernatorial veto,” he said. “The items in this proposed capital plan represent some of that quid pro quo.”

The most glaring quid pro quo: pumping $1.7 billion into a PATH extension to Newark Airport and nearly $1.5 billion into an AirTrain between LaGuardia Airport and Willets Point. Neither project is anticipated to carry many people or save much time over existing airport transit options.

“The airport links in the current plan devote significant sums to projects with dubious benefits,” the Citizens Budget Commission said in a report today. “The modest ridership estimates and limited improvements in travel times for these projects would almost certainly lead to unfavorable benefit-to-cost ratios.”

Projects that Port Authority staff have identified as important needs, like replacing the rickety Newark AirTrain or expanding the PATH to 10-car trains, remain unfunded in the capital plan.

For this we can thank Christie and Cuomo, and the Port Authority commissioners who refuse to stand up to them. 

But, hey, this is what we’ve got, right?

“It’s past time we stopped making the perfect the enemy of the good when it comes to fixing mass transit in this region,” said Stephen Sigmund of the Global Gateway Alliance, the region’s top airport advocate, echoing labor chief LaBarbera.

Then, there’s the knotty challenge of getting commuters across the Hudson River. The capital plan sets aside $2.7 billion for the Gateway Project, which will build a new rail tunnel to Penn Station, and $3.5 billion to replace the aging Port Authority Bus Terminal.

The board also approved $70 million to hire a planning consultant for the bus terminal replacement, but there is still major disagreement about how to proceed. The de Blasio administration wants a “tiered” environmental process to look at trans-Hudson transit, something Port Authority chair John Degnan claims could add $1 billion and two or three years to the project.

“There is a timeline that we’re up against,” Chernetz said, pointing out that the existing rail tunnels from New Jersey to Penn Station are overdue for major repairs and the existing bus terminal has 20 to 25 years left in its structural life. “We saw what happened after Sandy, and that was only for a few weeks. Could you imagine it in perpetuity?”

Meanwhile, the Port Authority lumbers along under the direction of the two governors. Bills to reform the authority have stalled in Albany and Trenton, and the hunt for a new chief executive officer to take over for Foye shows no signs of life as it approaches the two-year mark.

Asked about the search for a new CEO today, Degnan was brief. “It continues,” he said.