At last week’s board meeting, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey unveiled its latest $32 billion, 10-year spending blueprint — a document carefully calibrated not to consider the region’s need for new infrastructure, but to appease governors on both sides of the Hudson.
The governors, of course, appoint the Port’s commissioners and, bridge scandals notwithstanding, continue to pull the strings at the authority. Unfortunately, using the Port Authority to dole out money to gubernatorial pet projects does nothing to help commuters stuck with a dysfunctional regional transportation system.
Two big examples show how the latest Christie-Cuomo spending plan got it all wrong.
First up: dubious airport rail projects favored by both governors are getting funded in a suspicious quid pro quo. Nearly $1.5 billion would go to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s LaGuardia-Willets Point AirTrain, which transit experts say will actually take longer than existing bus service.
Meanwhile, the Newark AirTrain is nearing the end of its life and Port Authority staff recommend that it be replaced by 2022. The draft capital plan includes $300 million for repairs to keep the existing system limping along, but no funding for a full replacement. Instead, it allocates $1.7 billion to a 2.5-mile PATH extension to Newark Airport. The project would serve just 6,000 riders per day, according to one estimate, less than many underperforming city bus routes.
“The two airport rail projects… are amongst the most ill-conceived projects that I’ve experienced in government,” commissioner Kenneth Lipper, a Cuomo appointee, said at last week’s meeting. “I was told to vote for this, or asked to vote for this, because it was part of a grand compromise. I don’t feel that good government is, ‘I’ll let you waste $2 billion of public money in exchange for me wasting $2 billion of public money.’”
Lipper proposed an amendment to strike the two airport rail projects pending further study, thereby freeing up billions of dollars for other projects. Lipper’s fellow commissioners said they were sympathetic to his concerns, but voted the amendment down, 9-1.
The next problem with the Christie-Cuomo plan: It leaves trans-Hudson bus commuters stuck in the back seat. For the past couple years, the Port Authority has been consumed by plans to replace the deteriorating Port Authority Bus Terminal in Midtown. Moving commuters on trains instead of buses was ruled out before it was ever really considered, so the commissioners are instead focused on building a new bus terminal on Ninth Avenue as soon as possible.
Although commissioners have been saying for months that a new bus terminal is one of their top priorities, the draft capital program leaves nearly two-thirds of the project unfunded, putting $3.5 billion toward its estimated $10 billion cost. One reason for the shortfall: neither governor has taken the project under his wing. In fact, Cuomo has gone negative, using surrogates to attack Chair John Degnan, a Christie appointee, over the project.
Degnan, who had been pushing hardest for a new bus terminal, seemed to ease off the gas at a press conference after last week’s board meeting. “Personally it’s my hope that the $3.5 billion will be shovels in the ground and construction underway by the end of the 10-year period,” he said. “It will remain to be completed in the second 10-year capital plan.”
Regional transit advocates joined North Jersey elected officials in pushing for a fully-funded bus terminal, which Janna Chernetz, director of New Jersey policy for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said “is more deserving than any other project in the region.”
“It is shocking that we’re still here fighting to make this a priority for the Port Authority in their capital budget,” Chernetz said. “The focus should be in putting a bus terminal up front.”
Degnan reminded everyone at the board meeting that the governors can veto actions by their commissioners, before issuing a whimper of an endorsement for the spending plan. “Am I wildly enthusiastic about everything in this capital plan? No,” he said. “But I don’t think compromise is a bad thing.” He went on to lead the board to a unanimous vote to proceed with the draft plan.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way.
Last week’s board meeting began with testimony from public officials. No one from New York bothered to show up, but a trio of New Jersey state legislators implored the appointed commissioners to cease being a gubernatorial rubber stamp and instead prioritize regional infrastructure needs.
“When the decisions are more concerned with satisfying the parochial interests of our governors, rather than the region’s needs, then this agency loses its direction, and in my opinion, its purpose,” said New Jersey Assembly transportation committee chair and gubernatorial hopeful John Wisniewski. “My hope is that this capital plan is the first step in a long journey that you must take to restore our faith and our trust. My fear is that it’s simply more of the same.”
The complete draft plan has yet to be published on the Port Authority website, though a press release and brief summary are available. Public comment on the plan will include hearings in New York on January 31 and New Jersey on February 7, before the board is expected to vote on a final plan on February 16.