No More Squeaky Wheel Planning: Port Authority Must Focus on Regional Needs

Buses flowing in and out of the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Midtown Manhattan | Image: Bosc D'Anjou/FlickrBuses flowing in and out of the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Midtown Manhattan | Image: Bosc D'Anjou/Flickr

Strange things are afoot at the Port Authority. The last two years have been a whirlwind, capped off by a recent high-profile disagreement over the next 10-year capital plan and the replacement of the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

In March of 2015, after years of inaction, the prospect of a new Port Authority Bus Terminal seemed to be gaining steam with the release of a Midtown Bus Master Plan. Then, at the authority’s October meeting the commissioners resolved to solicit designs for a new PABT through an international competition. By March of 2016, commissioners were very busy, resolving that the PABT would be built in New York (not in New Jersey), fast-tracking the permitting process for the Gateway Tunnel Project, and approving a lease with LaGuardia Gateway Partners to build and operate a new Terminal B at LaGuardia Airport.

After some subsequent disagreements were resolved this summer, it appeared as though everything was on track. Until earlier this month when news broke that the bus terminal replacement process seemed to be falling apart during negotiations on the new 10-year capital plan. At issue: fiscal allocations between the PABT and LaGuardia Airport.

There is little doubt that these projects are important. Flip through the Port Authority’s current 10-year Capital Plan and you’ll find a whole host of important projects. But the plan reads more like a list of individual projects rather than a plan with short-, medium- and long-term goals. Indeed, the parties are talking about the projects in the Capital Plan in just this way. But a capital plan is not necessarily a strategic plan.

With so much coverage of political discussions regarding the project prioritization aspect of the debate and the Port Authority set to release a draft capital plan in the next few weeks, it’s time to take a step back to look at how the larger planning picture has been impacted by this lack of strategic planning.

The Issue

This reported conflict is essentially over air travel and surface travel in the Port Authority district, essentially two different markets (save for those customers who use Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, which mainly competes with commuter shuttle flights). The former addresses longer distance customers while the latter primarily focuses on commuters. But both are not only essential to the regional economy and handle incredibly large volumes of people and vehicles, they are also parts of a larger whole – the Port Authority region’s transportation system. Because of this, any fight over funding should be vetted through a longer term planning timeline that considers the broader Port Authority portfolio by analyzing both an individual project’s needs and how that project fits into the overall regional needs, such as number of customers served, impact of delay or inaction and timelines, regional goals such as environmental and economic development goals, as well as potential synergies or efficiencies of regional planning.

Although LaGuardia and PABT both clearly warrant individual consideration, in this conflict we see a microcosm of the larger problem of considering projects in silos. By digging deeper into the markets they serve, it is clear this is a region with so many competing priorities, the Port Authority should be engaging in a region-wide planning process that considers these projects in the context of its entire regional portfolio.

PABT & Cross-Hudson Travel

Buses

By itself, the PABT serves 66 million yearly trips, or approximately 230,000 cross-Hudson passengers per weekday. In terms of volume, it is the most critical node in the cross-Hudson peak-hour commute. But because of planning delay, it’s now operating above capacity, meaning not only are operations already spilling out onto local streets, but there’s also no room to grow. And the problem will only get worse as cross-Hudson bus travel is expected to increase by 50 percent by 2040. And that’s before one considers the significant latent demand for even more bus service NJ Transit does not run because of PABT capacity issues. What’s more, the terminal by itself is not the only capacity constraint, the New Jersey roadway system feeding the Lincoln Tunnel and PABT also needs to be significantly improved. But in this instance too, these improvements still require more planning before implementation.

Trains

In total, the larger trans-Hudson rail system serves almost half a million passengers per day, including 270,000 on PATH and approximately 200,000 on NJ Transit and Amtrak, both of which are already at capacity. With respect to NJ Transit, the only rail tunnel for connecting all of those commuters to Manhattan – built 100 years ago – is expected to fail within the next 20 years. The proposed solution, the Gateway program would double the number of cross-Hudson passenger trains. But planning delay has created a whole host of problems. For example, Gateway’s $23.9 billion price tag is significant, and with no solid funding commitments, there is no way to know if or when the entire program will be completed. Moreover, in the face of delay-imposed time crunch, the program is being segmented into discrete projects for the purpose of moving the process forward. In a vacuum, that’s a good idea; in terms of larger regional planning, however, this approach might be foreclosing opportunities in the name of saving money or maximizing resources for further cross-Hudson capacity expansion. For instance, the Hudson Tunnel project is not increasing capacity or being built with Amtrak’s desired high-speed rail improvements.

As for the PATH train, the Port Authority-commissioned Trans-Hudson Commuter Capacity Study details the serious problems facing this service. According to the report, all of the lines are already regularly at or exceeding capacity during the peak period. There are two methods Port Authority has been working on to add capacity: installation of Communications Based Train Control (CBTC) and the Newark Line 10-car program. But because of planning delay, both have short to medium term concerns. For CBTC to be effective, according to the report, Port Authority needs to buy 50 new train cars at a cost of $125 million to realize the capacity increase. As for the Newark Line 10-car program, it requires $189 million worth of labor and train car procurement. Neither of these amounts is in the current Capital Plan and the latter would not be operational until 2028 even if it were to be approved this year. Moreover, as Jersey City and Hoboken populations have exploded and continue to increase, better regional planning might have prioritized funding for capacity expansion rather than planning to spend $1.7 billion to extend PATH to Newark Airport, something Commissioner Kenneth Lipper recently called an absolute waste of public funds.

LGA & Regional Air Travel

LaGuardia Airport currently serves over 28 million passengers per year, or just under than 78,000 per day. Regionally, Port Authority-controlled airports serve 124 million passengers per year, or slightly more than 340,000 passengers per day. Accommodating air travel is naturally an important aspect of Port Authority planning, but questions about future planning remain and are not being adequately addressed by current plans.

For example, the LaGuardia redevelopment project that was reportedly central to the conflict this month will not increase the number of gates or flights at the airport, mostly because of regional airspace constraints. Rather, the new LaGuardia Terminal will meet an increased demand of 3.9 million passengers through its accommodation of larger planes. So even after the redevelopment money is spent, 10 years after it opens, it will again be operating at capacity.

But in this instance as well, it seems delay has created missed opportunities. Five years ago, the Regional Plan Association put out a very comprehensive report called Upgrading to World Class, The Future of the New York Region’s Airports detailing the region’s air travel problems and potential solutions. With the current dickering over whether or not to spend enough money in a new 10-year capital plan to complete LaGuardia (and the bus terminal), there has been no public expression of Port Authority’s intentions for solving regional air travel problems. For example, a large investment in LGA will meet the near term demand at that airport, but does not address the RPA’s report conclusion that “Without [LGA] both [JFK and Newark] could operate much more independently,” especially with the ongoing redevelopment and expansion of Newark Airport. There should be a coordinated, multi-agency, multi-government working group planning for this future, that takes into account New York City’s population and regional airport volume increases and considers solutions like expanding the region’s smaller airports, building a new airport, moving demand onto high-speed rail and others examined by the RPA report.

A Larger Plan

Although they are different markets, the clearly unifying aspect of both issues above is that this planning cannot and should not be done “squeaky wheel” style where the most visible problems get top priority. These are large projects with long delivery schedules that support one of the world’s largest regional economies. In fact, 10 years is actually a relatively short time frame in terms of public planning, especially for projects that have almost equivalent delivery timelines and much longer useful lives.

Rather, we ought to be setting goals for the region and engaging in regionally-cooperative planning that takes a big picture approach to deal with regional mobility needs. While the region is governed by four MPOs that agree to the “coordination of planning activities” throughout New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, the Port Authority is not an MPO and hence falls outside of this coordination. Regional planning of this magnitude must be much longer term, with 25-year, 30-year and even 40-year regional transportation plans seen throughout the nation. Only after short, medium and long term goals are defined, needs and funding sources (including regional funding) are considered and other agencies brought into the process, should a capital program be assembled. Using the current piecemeal, Port Authority-only approach just will not cut it and will continue to forego money saving and resource maximization opportunities.

1 Comment on "No More Squeaky Wheel Planning: Port Authority Must Focus on Regional Needs"

  1. Here is a big second to Commissioner Lipper’s comment that building PATH to Newark Airport is a huge waste of money in the funding constrained environment of NY-NJ. Why compete with Amtrak and NJT service?

    Improving the Northeast Corridor will divert even more flyers from the WAS-NYC-BOS air shuttles freeing up capacity at LGA for more valuable longer distance flights.

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