“We are so out of our league. We don’t know what we’re doing. If the board does not seek ideas from others, we’re going to make the wrong decision, as we’ve done before,” said PANYNJ Commissioner David S. Steiner at the September 2015 board meeting when voicing his position to delay a board vote on replacing the Port Authority Bus Terminal.
Steiner got his way this month: the PANYNJ Board of Directors approved a Resolution to move forward in the planning process by creating an international design competition for the concept of a new PABT. While this move is the first official action by the Board to replace the 65-year-old terminal which exceeded capacity in 1966, it still delays the much-needed project yet another year.
With PABT ridership expected to double by 2040 and Gateway not projected to be completed for at least another decade, the bus terminal is the most viable project to provide much-needed cross-Hudson capacity in the near term. However, there has been a real disconnect between the need for cross-Hudson capacity and project prioritization at the PANYNJ. Perhaps it has something to do with real life experience of the PANYNJ’s 12 Commissioners, none of whom have any professional experience in the transportation sector. Improvements to the outdated, overcrowded and obsolete terminal were notably absent in the PA’s 10 Year Capital program approved in February 2014. Since then, efforts to make the miserable commute, well, a bit less miserable have been made, including the $90 million “Quality of Commute” program and gate changes in the beginning of September.
In March, a Bus Master Plan Update presented to the Board indicated that 20 design concepts for a potential new terminal had been narrowed down to five. At that time, the Board created a subcommittee, the Bus Terminal Working Group, to focus on the planning process to replace the PABT. By September, those five concepts were further narrowed down by the subcommittee to one proposed site located one block west of the current structure, between Ninth and Eleventh Avenues. None of the vetted 15 concepts that landed on the cutting room floor were presented to the public.
Now it would appear that the Board is moving away from committing to a specific location for the new terminal. The draft Resolution, released along with the Board agenda prior to the meeting, was amended at the time of the vote to encourage suggestions of “alternative sites for a different PABT should analysis show the proposed site is not optimal.” The Board promised to have a preferred design concept ready for approval by the September 2016 meeting and to have stakeholder and public input during the ongoing process, but it was not clear as to how that would occur.
Steiner’s comment legitimizes a serious concern: does the Port Authority actually know what it’s doing when it comes to transit projects? Only this year, after criticism from advocates and elected officials in New Jersey did the agency acknowledge the bus terminal crisis. If it were a priority, it would have been in the capital program or perhaps submitted as a TIGER grant contender. Instead, redundant service to Newark Airport in the form of a PATH extension received priority.
Steiner is right: the Port Authority doesn’t know what it’s doing.