The Port Authority Bus Terminal is one of the worst transit hubs in New York City. On an episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, the host famously described it as “The single worst place on Planet Earth… where cockroaches run up to people, screaming, ‘Please get me out of here, this place is disgusting!’” Talking cockroaches aside, as Sigmund Freud once said, “A joke is truth wrapped in a smile.”
Handling even more trans-Hudson commuters than nearby Penn Station, the Midtown terminal is widely regarded as dingy, cramped, and outdated. Since its opening 70 years ago, the PABT underwent two major expansion projects to handle rapid demand growth. Despite its dilapidated conditions in recent years, the Port Authority has largely ignored the terminal, instead favoring flashy capital projects like the PATH extension to Newark Airport. It wasn’t until TSTC, advocates, and NJ legislators called out the Port Authority’s neglect of bus service in 2014 that the agency created a $90 million ‘quality of commute’ program, which amounted to little more than applying lipstick on a pig.
Now, the Port Authority’s latest proposal, estimated to cost at least $10 billion, will be the terminal’s third major expansion project. But will it actually improve trans-Hudson commuting, or will it be just a new terminal to wait for a still-delayed bus?
The existing terminal is obsolete and needs significantly more room to handle more people and buses–there’s no arguing that. But we cannot address regional transportation issues in a vacuum. Replacing the terminal in isolation will not address what is the root of the Port Authority’s commuter bus problem: the Lincoln Tunnel (an issue that TSTC has highlighted since 2008). In a 2015 ranking of the 50 worst highway bottlenecks in the country, the Lincoln Tunnel placed eighth on the list, with an annual average of 3.4 million hours of delay and $87 million in lost value of time.
The majority of New Jersey’s PABT-bound bus routes merge together just west of the Hudson River and funnel through the Lincoln Tunnel to reach Midtown. Prior to COVID-19, the Lincoln Tunnel was operating at capacity. The eastbound Express Bus Lane (XBL), which opened nearly 50 years ago in 1971, is not enough to handle present and future demand, even taking post-COVID reduced commuter projections into account. However, adding an additional bus lane in either direction has already been ruled out by the Port Authority due to engineering issues.
The goal is to increase XBL capacity by 30%, allowing an additional 200 buses and 10,000 passengers during the morning peak. This is what the Port Authority says is needed (pre-COVID) to handle projected demand for bus service in 2040. The best the Port Authority has done to attempt to address this capacity issue at the Lincoln Tunnel is a $4.8 million study on autonomous vehicle technology that could potentially allow buses to operate faster and closer together. But this will barely scratch the surface of solving the problem.
Let’s assume that the technology works and the new terminal opens on-time (unlikely) in 2031. That gives us roughly nine years of handling capacity, but what happens when demand grows beyond 2040? Will we be talking about another terminal expansion project 20 years from now, and what will we do about the tunnel problem? With or without autonomous vehicle technology, the Lincoln Tunnel will still be a critically vulnerable bottleneck, where all it takes is one emergency to paralyze the entire bus network.
Here’s another reason why we can’t look at this project in a vacuum. As Amtrak moves ahead with the Gateway Program, it’s worth noting that the proposed Bergen Loop will eventually provide northern New Jersey rail lines with a one-seat ride to Penn Station. This project could impact bus demand in New Jersey by encouraging more rail commuting, so why are Amtrak, NJ Transit, and Port Authority planning these projects in silos? What is so desperately needed is a regional approach to transportation planning and fixing the cross-Hudson commute, especially when we are talking about mega-projects with multi-billion dollar price tags.
Groups like ReThinkNYC and the Regional Plan Association have also joined in the call for a regional approach; maximizing our rail capacity to shift ever more commuters from bus to rail, particularly in heavily bus-dependent parts of northern New Jersey. If we want to build a truly regional transportation network, planners and decision-makers must follow their lead by thinking holistically and removing bottlenecks. Doubling down on the same logic that created our present issues will result in missed opportunities for building a more connected and resilient region.
Instead of making spot fixes, we need a short and long-term regional transportation and economic development plan with all the key stakeholders involved to study and accommodate trans-Hudson commuter flow. We need new solutions, and we will need them desperately by 2050 as the region’s population grows and the effects of climate change worsen. This is how we will get the most value out of these mega-projects while creating further incentives to commute by mass transit. If we fail to match the scale of the region with our solutions for trans-Hudson commuting issues, we risk strangling future mobility and losing some of the region’s most competitive advantages.
A consistent and steady stream of pressure still needs to be applied to the PANYNJ to make sure they get it right. The next opportunity for the public to be heard is the February 11th board meeting and we urge bus riders, transit advocates and all those interested to testify. As Joshua Schank, Chief Innovation Officer of LA Metro, recently stated on the Transit Unplugged podcast, “Now is the time to do the new stuff because now people are open to change.”