The Port Authority’s capital plan for the next 10 years includes no money to build the critically needed Gateway rail tunnels or upgrade or replace the overcrowded Port Authority Bus Terminal, but it does include $1.5 billion to provide Manhattan residents with a low-cost, one-seat ride on a new PATH line to Newark Airport.
To New Jersey mass-transit advocates, the controversial PATH extension is not only a case of misplaced priorities in an era of scarce funding, but also is emblematic of how political deal-making took precedence over policy needs for too long at the Port Authority, which is the subject of at least six separate federal and state investigations.
It was Gov. Chris Christie who pushed Port Authority commissioners 20 months ago to make sure its $27.6 billion capital plan for the next decade included the $1.5 billion PATH extension that United Airlines wanted to carry passengers and workers to its Newark Airport hub. United, which employs 13,000 workers in the region and carries 24 million of the 35 million passengers who fly in and out of Newark Liberty International Airport each year, would be the biggest beneficiary of the PATH extension, a five-year project on which construction is scheduled to begin in 2018.
United repaid the favor to Christie by agreeing to provide flights to Atlantic City Airport — which Christie convinced the Port Authority to take over — as part of the his administration’s master plan to bring national convention business to the resort’s casinos, an effort that was undercut by the closure of four of the city’s 12 casinos this year.
“I’m just not sure that a PATH extension to Newark Airport should take priority over other needs, given the transportation funding crisis that we are facing,” Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) said last week. “You can get on a train in Manhattan and get to Newark Airport now. We have other much more pressing needs to which that $1.5 billion could be devoted.”
Wisniewski’s view is echoed by a “who’s who” of transportation advocates, and the Port Authority is starting to listen.
Port Authority Commissioner Kenneth Lipper has already publicly called for the bistate agency to reevaluate its capital priorities — including the PATH airport extension — to find money to upgrade or replace the Port Authority Bus Terminal, whose 500,000 daily bus riders are repeatedly subjected to overcrowding and delays. The agency’s plans to upgrade the bus terminal took a severe hit Wednesday when its proposal for a $230 million federal grant for a new bus storage facility was rejected.
Perhaps even more critical, no funding has been identified for the new Gateway rail tunnels that must be built in the next 10 years because the two 104-year-old rail tunnels that carry 250,000 NJ Transit and Amtrak riders under the Hudson each day will have to be closed for a year each to repair damage from superstorm Sandy. When that happens, rail service will be cut from 24 trains an hour during rush hour to just six, creating a metropolitan transit crisis.
The Port Authority provided $3 billion for the Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) rail tunnel project that would have provided NJ Transit with two new rail tunnels under the Hudson by 2018, but Gov. Chris Christie cancelled the project in 2010 and diverted $1.8 billion in Port Authority money in order to renew the Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) without raising the gas tax.
That money is now gone, and the Port Authority provided no funding in its 10-year capital budget for the Gateway project. “Anybody who knew anything about what we are facing cringed when the Port Authority did its disappearing act on the Hudson River rail tunnels,” said Martin E. Robins, director emeritus of Rutgers University’s Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Policy Center.
Now, New Jersey is facing a triple-barreled transportation funding crisis:
The five-year $8 billion state Transportation Trust Fund, which was supposed to last until June 2016, is going to run out of money for new highway, bridge, and mass-transit capital projects a year early because of overborrowing by the Christie administration. Transportation Commissioner Jamie Fox conceded the new TTF renewal would require a tax increase, but whether Christie will go for a big enough gas-tax hike to finance the $2 billion-a-year program the state needs is questionable, especially with him eyeing a 2016 presidential run.
Congress’s willingness to fund a robust federal transportation bill when the current law expires in May is questionable, given the unwillingness of lawmakers to consider raising the current 18.4-cents-per-gallon federal gas tax. And Amtrak, which has been a favorite whipping boy of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, will be under even more fiscal pressure if the GOP also takes control of the U.S. Senate in next month’s election, which could affect Amtrak’s ability to obtain federal funding for the Gateway tunnel, one of its top priorities.
Finally, the Port Authority and the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, which served as “cash cows” for both Christie and his Democratic predecessor, Gov. Jon Corzine, have already raised tolls on the Port Authority’s six bridges and tunnels and on the Turnpike so high that they cannot reasonably be expected to raise tolls again. Consequently, New Jersey cannot expect a massive infusion like the $4.5 billion in Port Authority and Turnpike funds that Corzine put together to fund the ARC tunnel that Christie later cancelled.
It is the magnitude of the transportation-funding crisis facing New Jersey that worries legislators and transportation advocates alike, and it is for that reason that they are paying such close attention to how the state, the Port Authority, and other transportation agencies set priorities and allocate their budgets.
“It certainly would be nice to hop on a PATH train in Manhattan and go all the way through to Newark Liberty, but that’s just a matter of additional convenience because you can already take NJ Transit from Penn Station in New York,” said Jameson W. Doig, a Princeton University professor who has been a sharp critic of the politicization of decision-making at the Port Authority. “That seems to be a very modest improvement for the amount of money involved.
“I wonder whether Christie was simply mistaken or operating in his own reality when he thinks he will get more of a political payoff from running PATH trains out to Newark Airport and having United fly into Atlantic City than he would get from using Port Authority funds to fix the Port Authority Bus Terminal,” Doig said. Replacement of the bus terminal, which would cost an estimated $1 billion or more, “is clearly a much higher priority, and the new rail tunnel is a much larger project that needs separate consideration.”
Doig said the Port Authority should not only redirect the $1.5 billion allocated to the PATH extension to Newark Airport, but also should take away the $940 million “slush fund that it gave to the governors to spend on projects of their own choosing. I know this is the view of some of the (Port Authority) commissioners as well.”
Janna Chernetz, New Jersey Advocate for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, agreed that fixing the Port Authority Bus Terminal and building the Gateway rail tunnels should be the top priorities.
“The Port Authority Board of Commissioners says it is willing to put off projects in its 10-year capital plan if there are other projects that have higher priority,” Chernetz noted. “We would characterize the PATH Extension to Newark Airport as a project that should be put off for more of a high-priority project.”
Christie administration officials did not respond to emailed requests for comment on any linkage between the PATH extension to Newark Airport and United’s decision to begin flights to Atlantic City Airport.
But Fox, a Democrat whom Christie tapped last month to return to the transportation commissioner post he originally held a decade ago under Gov. Jim McGreevey, defended the merit of the planned $1.5 billion PATH extension to Newark Airport last Friday in a question-and-answer session at the New Jersey SEED (Society for Environmental, Economic Development) in Atlantic City.
“The Port Authority can’t invest enough money in Newark Airport,” Fox said, from upgrading terminals and runways to “making sure people can get there by road or by building a PATH extension so that the business community (in Manhattan) goes there rather than Kennedy Airport.
“I’m selfish about it … I’m not a parochial guy when it comes to the Port Authority,” said Fox, who served a stint as the agency’s deputy executive director during the McGreevey administration. “But there is a pot of money there, and we have to be sure we are getting our share.”
While the PATH extension also will bring workers from Essex and Hudson counties to Newark Airport, the ability to bring passengers from Lower Manhattan’s Financial District was clearly the top goal.
“This exciting project is going to create a one-seat ride from lower Manhattan to Newark airport,” Deborah Gramiccioni, Christie’s appointee as the Port Authority’s deputy executive director, said in announcing the PATH Extension last February at the first Port Authority board meeting held after she replaced Bill Baroni, who resigned in the wake of the Bridgegate scandal.
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