New Chairman signals change, but could be years away
A replacement for the aging and outdated Port Authority Bus Terminal may be a decade or more away, but officials at the agency said Wednesday they plan to improve commuters' daily experience with a series of smaller measures while rethinking a long-term capital plan to include a new facility.
The 64-year-old terminal has been the focus of increasing criticism in recent months, particularly from some New Jersey lawmakers who have said their constituents in the northern part of the state are tired of long wait times, an over- or under-heated waiting area, leaking ceilings and spotty wireless service.
The terminal handles about 220,000 passenger trips per day. This week, one of those passengers was newly appointed Port Authority chairman John Degnan, who rode the bus from New Jersey to get a firsthand look and pronounced the experience sorely lacking. During a committee meeting Wednesday, Cedrick Fulton, the agency's head of bridges, tunnels and terminals, called the terminal "functionally obsolete in almost every way imaginable."
On Wednesday, Degnan introduced a resolution to divert $90 million from the Port Authority's 10-year capital plan for immediate upgrades, which will go along with $173 million in the plan that is dedicated to terminal improvements. It is a far cry from the estimated $1 billion or more that it would cost to replace the facility, but Degnan called it an important shift.
"While what we are doing today isn't all we need to do, it is a significant step forward," Degnan said.
The money earmarked for the PABT will be used for measures such as fixing the air conditioning system and renovating restrooms, upgrading the cellphone and wireless systems and adding more customer service personnel. The agency also plans to try and reduce delays by adding street-level bus gates and reassigning other gates, and creating a bypass lane for buses to get to the fourth floor of the terminal quicker.
Hearing a board member refer to the plans as offering an enhanced commuter experience, New Jersey state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, a frequent critic of the agency, said, "This isn't enhanced commuting - this is what people should expect."
A longer term plan for a bus staging area in nearby Galvin Plaza, which would eliminate the need for some buses to return to New Jersey after the morning commute and come back in the evening, will cost about $400 million, Fulton said. The Port Authority has applied for $230 million in federal funding and would have to raise the rest.
The Port Authority has been called to task for not including a new bus terminal in its 10-year, $28 billion capital plan released this year. Several board members called Wednesday for a new terminal to be included in a revised capital plan, though it isn't clear what other projects would have to be shelved to make up the difference.
Plans last decade for a new terminal had to be scotched due to the economic downturn, executive director Patrick Foye said. While Degnan estimated a new terminal could take 10 to 15 years to be realized, Foye called it imprudent to make estimates now.
"We've got to take short- and medium-term steps to improve the customer experience," Foye said. "That's what we're focused on."