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The Port Authority Bus Terminal and Our Glaring Lack of Transit Leadership

This plan, known as Concept 3, was supported by the Port Authority's bus terminal working group but not endorsed by the full board of commissioners today. Image: Port Authority

This proposal, known as Concept 3, was supported by the Port Authority’s bus terminal working group but not endorsed by the full board of commissioners today. Image: Port Authority

The effort to replace the aging and overcrowded Port Authority Bus Terminal continues to suffer from the New York region’s inability to coordinate its transit mega-projects.

The bus terminal already handles more than 225,000 passengers per weekday and cannot accommodate all the bus traffic that crosses the Hudson in Midtown. Demand is expected to increase about 50 percent by 2040, but there is no plan in place to build a new terminal.

A working group of four Port Authority commissioners has been considering five concepts to replace the bus terminal with a modern facility that can handle many more passengers. Today they recommended a plan to the full board, but the full board didn’t endorse the working group’s proposal, putting off a vote until a later date, pending further study.

The almost-recommended-plan, known as Concept 3, would move the bus terminal one block west. It appealed to the working group for a variety of reasons, including the fact that unlike the other four options, the Port Authority would not have to build a temporary terminal to handle passengers while the new terminal is under construction.

“It doesn’t require an alternate facility and the complete disruption of the passenger experience for a decade,” said Commissioner Kenneth Lipper. “It’s less expensive, and it opens up billions of dollars in real estate.” Selling off development rights could help finance the project, which has been estimated to cost as much as $10.5 billion.

But moving the bus terminal west poses serious problems, due in part to the mistakes of past projects.

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The Trans-Hudson Transit Crunch Keeps Getting Tougher to Fix

Port Authority staff and its consultants say replacing the Port Authority Bus Terminal, even with a smaller facility, will cost billions and billions of dollars. Image: PANYNJ [PDF]

Port Authority staff and its consultants say replacing the Port Authority Bus Terminal, even with a smaller facility, will cost billions and billions of dollars. Image: PANYNJ [PDF]

When news broke earlier this week that replacing the Port Authority Bus Terminal would cost $11 billion, advocates were skeptical. At a board meeting today, many Port Authority commissioners, while recognizing the need to replace and expand the terminal, joined in that skepticism.

Over the past 18 months, Port Authority staff, working with consultants from Parsons Brinckerhoff and Skanska USA, among others, developed five options to replace the terminal [PDF]. Only one of them, which would take 11 to 15 years to complete, accommodates the projected 35 to 51 percent passenger growth increase by 2040 while also continuing to serve inter-city buses. Naturally, it is the most expensive option, with consultants putting the pricetag at $10.5 billion.

Concept 1, the only option that accommodates all the projected growth in bus travel through 2040, costs $10.5 billion. Image: Port Authority [PDF]

Concept 1, the only option that accommodates all the projected growth in bus travel through 2040 without moving some buses off-site, is projected to cost $10.5 billion. The yellow high-rise could help finance some of the project’s construction. Image: PANYNJ [PDF]

The other options would relocate inter-city buses to an unspecified bus terminal elsewhere. All five would add bus staging areas to reduce traffic on surface streets, and most would require construction of an interim facility to handle passengers while the bus terminal is torn down and rebuilt. The least expensive option of the bunch, at $7.5 billion, would actually handle fewer passengers than the existing terminal.

Why the high costs? The structural slabs that make up bus ramps and decks are deteriorating and will need to be replaced completely in 15 to 25 years.

“The heaviest structural steel pieces made in the world today will be required for this project, in the thousand of tons,” said Mark Gladden, a project executive at Skanska. He said there are only two places in the world that manufacture this type of steel, which will have to be custom-ordered.

Building ramps and structures that can accommodate thousands of buses each day above the portals to the Lincoln Tunnel, all while keeping existing passengers moving during construction, is a tall task. “There has been some comparison to high-rises and parking garages,” Gladden said. “That is a comparison that should not be made.”

Gladden compared the bus terminal replacement to the UPS Worldport in Louisville, Kentucky, which handles virtually all of the shipping company’s domestic air freight. Built 15 years ago, he said, it cost $850 million. Taking inflation and construction cost increases into account, the project would likely cost $1.7 billion today. Moving the project to New York, with its higher construction costs, would double the price tag to $3.4 billion. The UPS project didn’t have the steel requirements and logistical challenges posed by operating a bus terminal in Midtown Manhattan, Gladden said, which contribute to the additional costs.

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Does a New Port Authority Bus Terminal Really Cost $11 Billion?

It hit this morning’s headlines with a thud: Replacing the aged, overburdened Port Authority Bus Terminal will cost up to a staggering $11 billion, according to a plan to be presented to the Port Authority’s board on Thursday. But is that figure based in reality?

Advocates are skeptical and wary that the cost is being inflated in a bid to stop the project before it can get off the ground.

Photo: Port Authority

Both Chris Christie and Governor Cuomo have a history of inflating transit cost projections when they don’t want to build a project. Photo: Port Authority

The cost projection might seem par for the course to New Yorkers jaded by the region’s out-of-control construction costs. But let’s put things in perspective: The reported size of the bus terminal replacement is about the same as the combined cost of three of the Port Authority’s other major capital projects: the $1.5 billion PATH extension to Newark Airport, the $3.6 billion rehabilitation of LaGuardia Airport, and Santiago Calatrava’s $3.9 billion WTC transit hub.

The big difference between those projects and the new bus terminal? They’re actually in the Port Authority’s capital plan. The bus terminal revamp, however, doesn’t appear to have political support from either New York Governor Andrew Cuomo or New Jersey’s Chris Christie, the two men in charge of the bi-state agency. (Cuomo, for example, didn’t mention it in his infrastructure speech earlier this year.)

That might help explain how the Port Authority reached such outlandish cost projections, says Tri-State Transportation Campaign Executive Director Veronica Vanterpool.

“There’s a tendency to over-inflate transit costs just to kill them,” she said. Christie, of course, famously overstated the cost of the ARC Tunnel in his quest to derail the project, and Cuomo inflated the cost of bus lanes on the Tappan Zee Bridge in his rush to build a new crossing.

The Port Authority refused to comment on the cost estimates, only saying that they would be released to the board on Thursday. “We look forward to updating the board on this critical project,” said spokesperson Chris Valens, “and continuing to engage the public and other stakeholders on ways to improve the bus passenger experience in the region and meet the demands of the future.”

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One Mindblowing Fact Missing From BuzzFeed’s Port Authority Listicle

Earlier this week, BuzzFeed gleaned some fun facts about the Hudson River bridges and tunnels from a Port Authority data dump on the number of eastbound automobiles, buses, and trucks. If you took the numbers at face value, you might be left with the impression that cars are the most important thing moving around New York. But when you measure people instead of vehicles, the numbers look quite different.

BuzzFeed’s John Templon started off the nine-point listicle with a breakdown of vehicle traffic on the Port’s crossings:

1. It’s almost all cars. Automobile traffic consistently makes up around 91% of the total vehicles going over and through the bridges and tunnels in a month. Trucks make up between 6 and 7 percent, and buses account for the final 2 to 3 percent.

Buses are mentioned once again, and readers are left with the impression that they aren’t all that important, even at the crossing with the most bus traffic:

6. Buses love the Lincoln Tunnel. Buses accounted for 11.4% of all vehicles taking the Lincoln Tunnel to Manhattan in 2013. (Port Authority is right around the corner.) That proportion is 10 times greater than any other eastbound crossing. Next is the Holland Tunnel, at just 1.4%.

Barely more than one in ten vehicles coming from New Jersey in the Lincoln Tunnel is a bus. But what happens when you measure people, not vehicles?

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TSTC and Manhattanites Call for Port Authority to Improve Bus Facilities

TSTC's Veronica Vanterpool, center, and CB 4 chair Christine Berthet, to her right, outside the Port Authority Bus Terminal today. Photo: Madeline Marvar/TSTC

TSTC’s Veronica Vanterpool, center, and CB 4 chair Christine Berthet, to her right, outside the Port Authority Bus Terminal today. Photo: Madeline Marvar/TSTC

The Tri-State Transportation Campaign joined locals in Hell’s Kitchen today to call on the Port Authority to invest in improved and expanded bus facilities to relieve pressure on local streets.

With no more space left in the authority’s existing facilities, a growing number of buses are parked by curbs near the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Locals and advocates have long urged the Port Authority to remove idle buses from neighborhood streets and improve conditions for bus riders with a new garage and renovations to the terminal.

“The asthma rate for our children is the third highest in Manhattan,” said Christine Berthet, chair of Manhattan Community Board 4 and co-founder of CHEKPEDS, in a written statement. “Bus gridlock prevents pedestrians from crossing the streets and retail stores see their revenues plummet. With each residential tower replacing a bus parking lot, the problem has escalated to crisis proportions.”

Today’s event took place before the Port Authority board was scheduled to vote on the 2014-2023 capital program.

“Every day, more than 8,500 buses carry nearly 400,000 people through the PABT and the GWBBS [George Washington Bridge Bus Station] so it’s baffling that there are no funds in the next capital program for a new bus garage or improvements to the bus terminal,” said Veronica Vanterpool, TSTC executive director.

A billion-dollar bus garage was proposed in the authority’s 2007-2013 capital program, but the project was dropped in 2009, Vanterpool told Streetsblog. The authority is looking to build a 100-spot garage annex on W. 39th Street between 10th and 11th Avenues, but that proposal is dependent on a federal grant. It’s also much smaller than the garage that was shelved by the authority, Vanterpool said.

Vanterpool noted that the authority can make year-to-year budget and capital spending adjustments, which leaves room for bus improvements to resurface.

“The annex is certainly something that will help,” said Vanterpool, “but the Port Authority needs to revisit its priorities and start making capital investments for buses.” 


GWB Will Get Bike-Ped Upgrades as Part of Cable Rehab Project

Yesterday, the the Port Authority board authorized a $1.03 billion rehabilitation of the George Washington Bridge’s suspension cables that will also fix problem spots for cyclists and pedestrians using its shared paths. But the upgraded biking and walking routes will still be two feet narrower than the recommended width for shared-use paths.

Say goodbye to these stairs on the George Washington Bridge 2024. Photo: Google Maps

Say goodbye to these stairs on the George Washington Bridge path… in ten years. Photo: Google Maps

Today, users of the south path face a hairpin turn on the Manhattan side. The north path, which remains closed, has staircases on both sides of the Hudson. Under the plan, both paths would be upgraded to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, eliminating the hairpin turn and the stairs.

The north path will receive upgrades first and then reopen to the public before the south path is closed for construction.

The fixes were welcomed by Transportation Alternatives and the New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition, which both worked with the Port Authority as it was planning the project.

In his testimony, Neile Weissman, who serves as president of the New York Cycle Club, also praised the changes but prodded the Port Authority to widen the paths, which at 8 feet would fall below federal guidelines, which call for a minimum of 10 feet, or up to 14 feet for busy shared-use paths.

“We have a budget and a limited amount of revenue,” Port Authority spokesperson Chris Valens told Streetsblog. “We did what we thought we could accommodate based on the project and the cost of the project.” Valens added that with both the north and south paths open, it might be possible to designate one path for cyclists and another for pedestrians, though no final decision has been made.

Construction is set to begin in 2017, with final completion in 2024.


One-Way Gap in Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway Set to Be Closed This Fall

The Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway is planned to run along the inside edge of a Port Authority lot in Red Hook. Negotiations between DOT and the Port Authority have delayed this short section until the fall. Image: DOT

Construction continues on the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway along Van Brunt Street, with a two-way buffered bike lane extending the greenway south through Red Hook striped recently, but there’s a conspicuous gap in the route that won’t be filled until at least this fall.

Missing link: This two-way bike path on Conover Street is supposed to continue through the fenced-off lot in the background. Photo: Stephen Miller

Reader Anna Zivarts flagged the problem with this short video and set of photos showing how southbound cyclists on Imlay Street find that the two-way bike lane suddenly ends at Verona Street, giving them the option to backtrack, divert to a cobblestone street, ride on a narrow sidewalk, or ride against traffic for two blocks before rejoining the new bike lane on Conover Street.

Why the gap? As shown in this DOT presentation from February [PDF], the missing link is supposed to be bridged by a bike path that jumps off the street and runs along the edge of a Port Authority truck storage yard, but it appears negotiations between the Port Authority and DOT didn’t wrap up before the on-street section was striped.

“The permanent greenway route along the Basin is expected to be completed in the fall,” DOT spokesperson Nicholas Mosquera said in an e-mail. In the meantime, he said, DOT will be installing temporary bike route indicators on the sidewalk. This stretch of sidewalk, while not heavily used by pedestrians, isn’t especially wide, and on a recent visit was blocked by companies that were unloading trucks.

“We continue to work with the Port Authority and other agencies to implement the portion along Atlantic Basin,” Mosquera said. Streetsblog has inquired with the Port Authority, but is still awaiting a response.

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Proposal for New Park Near Lincoln Tunnel Endorsed by CB 4


A community-driven proposal to create a new public space on a street near the Lincoln Tunnel was endorsed by Manhattan Community Board 4 Wednesday.

The plan, as reported by DNAinfo in December, is to convert three lane-widths of leftover asphalt on Dyer Avenue between 34th and 35th Streets into a park. That stretch of Dyer currently has three lanes for vehicle traffic exiting the tunnel and one lane for inbound vehicles. The Port Authority, which owns the street, plans to eliminate one of the outbound lanes. A coalition of neighborhood groups, including the Hell’s Kitchen Neighborhood Association and CHEKPEDS, envisions a park on the east side of Dyer, encompassing about 7,200 square feet.

DNAinfo reports that last night CB 4 voted unanimously to recommend the plan to the Port Authority.

There is still money to be raised, and the board wants “at least two” public feedback sessions. But organizers are upbeat — and with good reason, especially considering that the idea for the park came about only a few months ago.

“We’ve made a tremendous amount of progress so far,” said Jeffrey Peyser, who’s part of the effort to create the park.

“We’ve done outreach for corporate sponsorship to fund the initial aspects of the park and are working on getting matching grant programs.”

Meta Brunzema, an architect who helped create the initial design for the park, said that despite its tiny size, the green space would include new trees, seating areas and other amenities.

“Our group’s intent was really to make this a park for everybody — for seniors, for people with disabilities, for young people, for old people,” she said.

“The goal here is to make a real park.”


NYC’s New Curbside Bus Rules Are No Long-Term Fix

Under new regulations passed by Albany last month, curbside bus companies must now go before community boards before receiving a permit from DOT. Greyhound and Peter Pan, jointly launching service to Philadelphia from Chinatown, are among the first to navigate the new process. The bus companies are facing stiff opposition from neighbors before a community board committee vote next week.

New York's streets have become the heart of an interstate transit network. Image: Nicholas J. Klein and Andrew Zitcer via The Washington Post

The expansion of intercity transit wouldn’t come down to community-level fights if capacity limitations at the city’s transportation hubs were addressed. In the meantime, buses will continue to be kicked to the curbs.

Growing demand for commuter and intercity transit has pushed NYC’s existing terminals and tunnels to their limits. The problem is especially problematic for travelers who cross the Hudson River.

Penn Station is connected to the rest of the country by just two tracks, and in the wake of Chris Christie’s cancellation of the ARC tunnel, any expansion will be a very long time coming.

The Port Authority Bus Terminal, where commuter buses have shouldered the demand that the rail system cannot, is operating beyond its capacity, with riders facing mounting delays that show no sign of dissipating.

Now that the Port Authority has filled up, New Jersey Transit is considering using Midtown streets as loading zones for its commuter buses. Chinatown-based intercity bus operators have long offered curbside service; competitors owned by major carriers have joined them in recent years.

A new state law allows the city to regulate curbside pickups, giving the practice some added legitimacy. Instead of expanding capacity at existing hubs, New York has converted its streets into its latest bus terminal.

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Lautenberg Introduces Bill to Limit Bridge and Tunnel Tolls

Last summer, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey raised EZPass tolls from $8 to cross a bridge into the city during peak hours to $9.50, with planned increases to $12.50 in a few years (cash tolls are increasing somewhat more). Tolls for five-axle trucks will rise as high as $125.

The hikes marked the first time the Port Authority had raised tolls since 2008, and the only the third since 2001. Nevertheless, congressional representatives from the area are making noise. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Rep. Michael Grimm (R-NY) teamed up today to announce a bill to increase federal oversight of road tolls.

The “Commuter Protection Act” would restore U.S. DOT’s power to determine whether tolls on interstate bridges and tunnels are “just and reasonable” and set lower maximum tolls if they deem it necessary. The agency had that power until 1987, when it was revoked during an era of deregulation. The bill would also require the Government Accountability Office to produce a report on the “transparency and accountability” of how toll rates are set.

“When it costs $12 to drive your car across a bridge in America [the rate for cash tolls], something is wrong,” Lautenberg said in a statement. “Commuters are suffering.”

Lautenberg has a strong pro-transit record, but in this case he may end up hurting transit by taking up the cause of constituents who drive into the city. For one thing, the tolls have led to a four percent drop in traffic across the Port Authority crossings, which is good news for bus speeds. Meanwhile, ridership on PATH trains has risen 3.7 percent.

It’s still an open question whether the final draft of the bill will consider transit a “just and reasonable” purpose for tolling funds. There is currently no legal definition of “just and reasonable.” Even if transit is covered, however, the bill could still do damage.

If the U.S. DOT were to actually intervene with the Port Authority, for instance, there would probably be less funding available for transit. Already, the Port Authority scrapped plans to build a much-needed new bus depot in Manhattan because Governors Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo scaled back the latest round of toll hikes.

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