Airports and how we get to them is the cause du jour of the proposed 2017-2026 Port Authority Capital Plan currently under consideration (and subject to public comment) by the Port Authority. Despite the overall “spread it around” spending approach, airport access is getting about as much money as the Gateway tunnel program or the Port Authority Bus Terminal, despite having much lower ridership.
This unfocused, short-sighted approach omits the strategic, long term planning necessary for an agency of this size. Take for example the proposed AirTrain to LaGuardia, a $1.5 billion project whose goals could be achieved through providing better bus service.
But that’s not the only project in this Capital Plan that ought to be placed on the back burner. Here are four reasons the $1.7 billion PATH Extension to Newark Airport isn’t a sound investment for the Port Authority to be making today.
1. It doesn’t create a one-seat ride to the airport.
Since the PATH extension wouldn’t directly serve terminals, the project would do nothing more than provide another two-seat ride from Manhattan to Newark Liberty International Airport. New Jersey Transit trains traveling along the Raritan Valley, Northeast Corridor, and North Jersey Coast lines already stop at the Newark Liberty International Airport Station, where passengers can then transfer to the AirTrain.
2. Adding riders to an already overcrowded system that is already projected to get worse.
The PATH system is at or nearly at capacity, and demand is expected to increase. This is especially true for the Newark-World Trade Center line. According to the Port Authority’s Trans-Hudson Commuting Capacity Study:
At some point between 2015 and 2020, peak demand on this line is expected to exceed existing capacity, which indicates a need for capacity expansion in the near-term. Demand is projected to continue to grow beyond 2020, reaching as much as 75% higher than 2015 levels by 2040.
Of course, some capacity expansion is included in this current capital plan, with $278 million being allocated to complete the Signal System Replacement Program by 2022. But according to the Commuting Capacity Study, the Signal System Replacement Program isn’t enough, because
By the mid-2020s, the additional capacity that would be enabled by the Signal System Replacement Program is likely to be insufficient to fully accommodate projected demand on the Newark-WTC Line. Capacity on the Newark-WTC Line could be expanded by an additional 25% by enabling use of 10-car trains instead of 8-car trains on this line.
Making matters worse, these projections do not include the PATH train extension. With such serious current and future problems, it would seem Port Authority should be much more concerned with finishing all capacity improvement projects for the current system before it tries to extend the system and add even more riders to an existing capacity problem.
3. Building the PATH Extension necessitates rebuilding the 21-year old AirTrain.
The beleaguered AirTrain Newark, built in 1996 with a cost of approximately $1 billion when construction and repairs are all added up, has been in need of a replacement since the day it was built. After years of mounting problems, in 2014, the AirTrain had to be shut down for 75 days due to erosion-induced maintenance needs. Now, in the proposed capital plan, the Port Authority is spending another $380 million for more AirTrain maintenance on a system it will eventually replace for an estimated $2 billion.
4. An enhanced bus service can connect passengers directly to the terminals for a lot less money
For all the reasons above, much like the LaGuardia AirTrain, before building the PATH Extension, the Port Authority should first consider implementing an express bus service to accommodate airport customers and workers.
According to the Regional Plan Association, about 2.5 million trips per year are projected for the PATH Extension. That works out to 6,850 passengers per day, or 285 passengers per hour, or 48 passengers every ten minutes, on average. This type of ridership could easily be accommodated by establishing an express bus service with 10 minute headways between Newark Penn Station to the airport terminals. And if the Port Authority is really serious about getting passengers to the airport as quickly and conveniently as possible, it will have to work with the City of Newark and the New Jersey Department of Transportation to consider potential improvements like transit signal priority, queue jumps and exclusive bus lanes to make the service as fast and efficient as possible.