The Port Authority Bus Terminal and Our Glaring Lack of Transit Leadership

This plan, known as Concept 3, was supported by the Port Authority's bus terminal working group but not endorsed by the full board of commissioners today. Image: Port Authority
This proposal, known as Concept 3, was supported by the Port Authority’s bus terminal working group but not endorsed by the full board of commissioners today. Image: Port Authority

The effort to replace the aging and overcrowded Port Authority Bus Terminal continues to suffer from the New York region’s inability to coordinate its transit mega-projects.

The bus terminal already handles more than 225,000 passengers per weekday and cannot accommodate all the bus traffic that crosses the Hudson in Midtown. Demand is expected to increase about 50 percent by 2040, but there is no plan in place to build a new terminal.

A working group of four Port Authority commissioners has been considering five concepts to replace the bus terminal with a modern facility that can handle many more passengers. Today they recommended a plan to the full board, but the full board didn’t endorse the working group’s proposal, putting off a vote until a later date, pending further study.

The almost-recommended-plan, known as Concept 3, would move the bus terminal one block west. It appealed to the working group for a variety of reasons, including the fact that unlike the other four options, the Port Authority would not have to build a temporary terminal to handle passengers while the new terminal is under construction.

“It doesn’t require an alternate facility and the complete disruption of the passenger experience for a decade,” said Commissioner Kenneth Lipper. “It’s less expensive, and it opens up billions of dollars in real estate.” Selling off development rights could help finance the project, which has been estimated to cost as much as $10.5 billion.

But moving the bus terminal west poses serious problems, due in part to the mistakes of past projects.

Today, bus passengers have direct access to the A, C, and E trains on Eighth Avenue, with access to other trains at Times Square through a block-long underground passageway. Under Concept 3, most of the passenger and boarding areas would be on the block between Ninth Avenue, Tenth Avenue, 39th Street, and 40th Street. That’s a full avenue west and one street south of the existing bus terminal.

To bridge the gap, the plan includes pedestrian overpasses connecting the new bus terminal with office and retail developments on the old Port Authority site, where passengers would go underground to swipe their MetroCards. The walk to most Times Square subway lines for more than 230,000 passengers each day would increase from about five minutes to at least 10 minutes in each direction.

The cancelled 7 extension station, in purple, would have been convenient to a potential site for a new Port Authority Bus Terminal, in solid red. The existing bus terminal is outlined in red; the Times Square subway platforms are in grey. Map edited from MTA CEQR document [PDF]
The new bus terminal would be located just south of where the city, as part of the 7 train extension to Hudson Yards, at one point planned to build a subway station. That station was cancelled by the Bloomberg administration in 2007 to reduce costs. The subway was ultimately built to allow an infill station, but construction would be much more disruptive and expensive than if it had been included in the original project.

“There is no way that terminal is going to work west of Ninth Avenue unless you build the [subway] station,” Community Board 4 chair Christine Berthet told Streetsblog.

Taxi pick-ups and drop-offs for the bus terminal, which currently occur on Eighth Avenue, would likely shift west as well, affecting city streets. “Ninth Avenue is already completely jammed with Lincoln Tunnel queues,” Berthet said. “How does that work?”

Another drawback is that the new terminal probably won’t be big enough to handle all of the buses that could use it. Inter-city buses to destinations beyond the New York region would have to be moved to a still-undetermined location. (Only one of the five concepts the working group considered could accommodate inter-city buses; it was also the most expensive option.)

Port Authority Vice Chair Scott Rechler suggested moving both inter-city and commuter bus terminals outside Manhattan, where passengers could transfer to a rail connection. While Berthet, who has combatted the growing bus traffic in her neighborhood, supports the idea, most commissioners were not swayed by an option that imposes a two-seat ride to Manhattan.

Of course, shifting tens of thousands of bus commuters onto rail across the Hudson River would impose other infrastructure costs. The current train tubes to Penn Station, like the bus terminal, are aging and at capacity, and the region’s leaders are just beginning to discuss how to fund a new rail tunnel.

Local City Council Member Corey Johnson urged the Port Authority to widen its lens. “I think one thing that the Port Authority needs to look at is entire west side of Manhattan and how our transportation options and future infrastructure projects fit together,” he said. Johnson’s district includes the bus terminal, the 7 train extension and Penn Station, which a new rail tunnel would serve. “These are all things that need to be thought about in a master plan type of way, because they all impact each other.”

Commissioners seemed to acknowledge today that they are ill-equipped to plan for regional commuters, due to the absence of coordination with other agencies and a lack of data. Nor has the bus terminal become a noticeable priority for Governor Cuomo, Governor Christie, or Mayor de Blasio.

At the same time, the commissioners view fixing the overcrowded bus terminal as an urgent issue.

“This is the biggest decision, in my 10 years as a commissioner, that I will make,” said commissioner Tony James. “But we need to move forward. I agree, we can’t study this to death.”

  • Impressed that you were able to refrain from including the money quote. Via NJ.com:

    “We are so out of our league, we don’t know what the hell we’re doing,” said Commissioner David Steiner of New Jersey, a member of the more-time faction, who wants to hold a design contest for the new terminal.

  • Mark Walker

    Previous generations built the trans-Hudson rail tunnels and the bus terminal. We are not equal to the task of keeping existing service running, let alone expanding it. Shame on the morons some of us voted into office. Shame on us.

  • millerstephen
  • LN

    Meanwhil,… uptown…. the Port Authority is dismantling the only other bus station in Manhattan (GWB Terminal) removing all the buses and turning it into a mall. How is a transportation agency in the business of building a mall? All north-bound busses could easily go through this station, not only getting the buses off city streets, but also cutting an hour off everyone’s bus trip.

  • The only thing the PA has done of late is build malls. That’s what the WTC Transportation Hub is.

  • Mark Walker

    Wow, I hadn’t heard about this. Another bonehead move.

  • BBnet3000

    EDC is also into the mall craze. Meanwhile, everywhere else in the US the indoor malls are waning, and no private entity seems interested in building them.

  • kevd

    I see the part about adding retail, but are they really eliminating all buses?
    Visiting NYC many many years ago it drove me nuts that I had to take the 1/9 down to the PABT only have DRIVE RIGHT PAST 104th st where I’d left an hour earlier. Psychologically, I would have been much happier going the other way to the GWB BT to catch a bus to New England.

  • Joe R.

    Our inability to tackle megaprojects in a cost effective and timely manner started disappeared right around when manned space exploration was cancelled in the mid 1970s. The link may not be so apparent to some but I think this was one major precipitating factor. Children who were alive during those heady days of lunar landings, with promises for manned missions to Mars by the early 1980s, saw the value of thinking big. Doubtless many of them became scientists and engineers as result. That includes myself. I probably would have tried out for the space program, instead of becoming an electronics engineer, except there was no space program, just flying a space truck into low Earth orbit. Our leaders failed us. We stopped thinking big once we cancelled the last lunar mission. Everything since then has just been a sad byproduct of that. Our inability to get off fossil fuels, our devolution into a culture of shallow, materialistic morons, our inability to find real leaders, our inability to think big. It’s a sad state of affairs when it takes longer and costs more in real dollars to build things like a bus terminal or rail tunnel than it did when my grandfather was a boy. We should be ashamed of ourselves.

    I don’t know if there’s any quick fix but a good long term solution is to start thinking big again, then just getting it done. No delays, no red tape. Design it this year, build it next year, move on to the next megaproject. In fact, don’t even call them megaprojects because they’re not. The Hoover Dam was a megaproject. Building a bus terminal isn’t. Maybe take a cue from China. They’re doing now what the US was doing 50 years ago. If we don’t starting doing the same, the US will join the dustbin of also-rans.

  • Emmily_Litella

    Interesting how moving sidewalks are never considered for bridging modest gaps – like Javits to Penn. Paris Metro and the world’s airports move millions on them every day. I think they can be relied on to move people an extra lousy block west through property that the PA itself will develop.

    You could have very short turn mega artics do the job in the construction interim.

  • Miles Bader

    You say that like you somehow disapprove… (why?)

    Rail stations and retail are a natural, and mutually beneficial, combination. Most commenters here advocate TOD, well.. that’s what this is. Station retail is convenient for riders, good for the retailers, helps fund the transit sysytem, and encourages development around the station, which is a good thing.

    [I know this very well because I live in Tokyo, where station retail is practically the local religion… my main perspective is as a passenger and/or customer, and from that perspective, it’s fantastic.]

  • Miles Bader

    Traditional U.S.-style car malls are a completely different animal from station retail, and trends related to one do not apply to the other.

    Car malls depend on being a destination, and typically an inconvenient one at that. As soon as they fall out of fashion, people stop going there, and that makes them even more unfashionable, and from there it’s a quick descent into oblivion.

    Station retail, on the other hand, has a built-in captive market. It can be a destination, but even should a shop fall out of fashion, there will always be potential customers, they’ll always be on foot, they’ll always walk by your storefront, and in many cases (commuters after work) they’ll be tired and your shop will be the easiest and quickest place to go should they need something.

    From the passengers’ point of view, station retail a very convenient way to shop.

    From the transit-system and community’s point of view, convenient retail makes stations more inviting and busy places, attracts development near them, and thus encourages denser and more transit-friendly development in general.

    It’s a mutually-advantageous feedback loop.

  • HamTech87

    Doesn’t seem like they’re getting rid of buses. Just moving them around. But maybe that’s code for reducing service?

    http://www.panynj.gov/bus-terminals/george-washington-bridge-bus-station-restoration.html

  • HamTech87

    Hudson Yards as an inter-city bus station seems obvious. And if we’re never going to build a 7 subway station at 41st and 10th, can we add a MetroNorth station there — part of the dormant West Side Access proposal?
    http://observer.com/2013/02/west-side-vs-east-side-access-upper-west-side-may-get-metro-north-stop/

  • kevd

    that’s what it looked like to me, too.
    I think they are NOT removing all the buses – even if they aren’t adding more, which would make a lot of sense.

  • kevd

    germany is very much like that as well.
    the biggest malls are all at train stations.
    It is certainly not a horrible idea, but when it is the ONLY IDEA transit providers have, then you have a problem.

  • Miles Bader

    Well if they stop actually providing transit, then yeah, that’s not good.. :]

    Still, I’ve noticed a lot of griping about station retail on this blog that seems to completely miss the point that in general it helps transit. A system with a good use of retail is almost always going to be a better transit system.

  • kevd

    I think the griping is about transit malls costing $4 Billion, not about their being retail at stations more generally. Has any complained about GCT retail? I’d say that is a fine example of station retail. Heck even I bought a phone charger there once.

    Also, there is a strong sense (one which I share) that many politicians think that high end retail is the be all and end all of a successful station, and things like connectivity to other services, or the amount of service provided are inconsequential as long as there is a Sephora or Eataly or something at the station.
    In places like germany and japan, they don’t just create retail in stations, they also do all the other, boring work of improving service, even when it doesn’t involve a ribbon cutting.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    demand for buses from NJ to Midtown is NOT going to double by 2040

  • Alexander Vucelic

    $10 Billion to move an additional 250,000 people from NJ daily ?

    hmm

    There might be a Couple of more efficient ways to move 250,000 people a Day from NJ Into Manhattan.

    1) Extend 7 Like to NJ

    2) Exapand & Extend Existing PATH Service

    3) Passenger Rail to Lackwana Terminal then Ferries

    4) I Heard there were plans to build a Big ol’ Rail Tunnel under the Hudson

    bus Service Is fine up to a point, but After certain Levels of demand; it’s heavy Rail. None of These solutions Add 250,000 by themselves, but collectively They Likely exceed 250,000 by a great margin.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    Like dude but Tokyo gain statikns aha e ginormous traffic

    isn’t true that the Main station handled Over 1 Million per Day

  • Zack Rules

    I know Port Authority would never do this but some temporary fixes in the existing facility such as brighter lighting, popup shops and parklet features, and other tactical urbanish ideas would make the existing facility much better. Also, if they better coordinated the buses backing up and pulling out, for example forcing two buses with a few rows separation to back out at the same time, the facility might run a little smoother with very little investment. I mean $10b for a new bus terminal is completely insane.

  • bolwerk

    The MNRR stop is an interesting idea. I didn’t realize the line ran so close to the 7 Train.

    https://www.google.com/maps/@40.7581811,-73.9953066,17.25z

  • Matthias

    I wasn’t aware of a shutdown of the terminal, just a redevelopment of the retail areas. I would like to see a lot more done with this terminal though.

  • bolwerk

    I think that figure is off. There are 250k-300k riders now, and we need to accommodate somewhere in the mid-five figures more.

    I still never saw whether it was possible to fit an HBLR vehicle in the Lincoln Tunnel, but that seems like a fairly obvious solution for a quick and dirty capacity increase. The price would be in the hundreds of millions rather than tens of billions too. A surface tram loop in Midtown probably can alight as many people as PABT, and it doesn’t need to alight anywhere near as many to be successful.

    I think for rail to really take the load off, you need some kind of rail between where a huge proportion of those trips start and Midtown. That said, when you have 250k people going to a single point, rail should obviously be part of the mix anyway.

  • Joe R.

    Maybe putting entire new PABT, not just an inter-city bus terminal, on Hudson Yards (or even on landfill next to Hudson Yards) isn’t a bad idea. Building costs might actually be lower given that you’re not building around existing structures, other than the access ramps from the Lincoln Tunnel.

  • bolwerk

    I can’t find any cite anywhere that it’s being turned into a bus-free mall, and LN didn’t provide one. I don’t know why so many people are upvoting something so prima facie specious.

    Yes, they are updating the retail. This is a longstanding plan.

  • Joe R.

    Part of the issue seems to be the structure itself is deteriorating to the point the ramps and decks will need replacement in 15 or 20 years. Given that fact, it’s likely more cost effective to just build a brand new terminal. However, I agree the cost estimate is completely ridiculous. It shouldn’t be much over $1 billion.

  • bolwerk

    Supposedly half the riders walk from PABT. Moving the terminal even a block west sounds like a bad idea.

    (Maybe it’s necessary, but it’s not *good*.)

  • Joe R.

    What about having moving sidewalks as Emmily Litella has already suggested? That seems like an obvious solution to me. Whether the new terminal is located on Hudson Yards or 9th Avenue, have an underground moving sidewalk going right to the location of the old PABT, perhaps taking people directly to the existing subway entrance. Such a facility might even double by providing an easy route for people walking from 8th Avenue to Javits.

  • bolwerk

    Not saying it’s a bad idea, and it might be the best that can be done, but you’re still talking about moving 30k+/hour further from their destination. At least at 8th they diffuse onto several different subway lines and walk in multiple directions.

  • Matthias

    I’m speechless, but I suppose I appreciate his honesty.

  • neroden

    Ummmmm, the only long-term purpose of the Port Authority Bus Terminal is for the intercity buses. Literally the only purpose.

    All the local buses which are running to it should be replaced by train service; it would be cheaper.

  • neroden

    Everyone who’s thinking big today has gone into renewable energy.

    The bigger problem is that our state and city governments have hit the point where corruption is choking them and preventing them from functioning. I’m not sure how to break the deadlock. Dismantling the NYPD and replacing it with an entirely new police department would probably be a good *start*. The new police department might be willing to actually investigate corruption, rather than BEING corrupt like the current department.

  • neroden

    HBLR in the Lincoln Tunnels is obviously the best choice. Then relocate the local bus terminals to Jersey.

    The Intercity buses from far away are going to Manhattan direct; if kicked out of PABT they will park on the street. Really.

  • jimmyd

    A commuter rail train with lots of seats and packed with riders going to/from the Bronx and points north that runs maybe every ten or fifteen minutes at peak and doesn’t go downtown or to east midtown is not going to help with distributing bus passengers.

  • bolwerk

    I didn’t mean to say it does anything for bus riders. It’s still an interesting idea. I think it’s fair to say a lot of the problem with Penn Station is how far south it is. MNRR access to the west 40s isn’t a bad idea, even if the line is a bit more west than would be ideal.

  • MR

    Might be a pipe dream, but what if they built a bus only bridge branching off Route 3 at the helix in Weehawkin and crossing directly into a new bus terminal built on the Javits Marshalling field next to the new 7 train stop. If 50 percent growth is a real possibility they have to think bigger.

  • Pedro Valdez Rivera Jr.

    The Port Authority Bus Terminal and the Port Authority itself are so embarrassing that even comedian John Oliver talked about these on the issue of crumbling infrastructure on the HBO show known as “Last Week Tonight.” ?

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