The Trans-Hudson Transit Crunch Keeps Getting Tougher to Fix

Port Authority staff and its consultants say replacing the Port Authority Bus Terminal, even with a smaller facility, will cost billions and billions of dollars. Image: PANYNJ [PDF]
Port Authority staff and its consultants say replacing the Port Authority Bus Terminal, even with a smaller facility, will cost billions and billions of dollars. Image: PANYNJ [PDF]
When news broke earlier this week that replacing the Port Authority Bus Terminal would cost $11 billion, advocates were skeptical. At a board meeting today, many Port Authority commissioners, while recognizing the need to replace and expand the terminal, joined in that skepticism.

Over the past 18 months, Port Authority staff, working with consultants from Parsons Brinckerhoff and Skanska USA, among others, developed five options to replace the terminal [PDF]. Only one of them, which would take 11 to 15 years to complete, accommodates the projected 35 to 51 percent passenger growth increase by 2040 while also continuing to serve inter-city buses. Naturally, it is the most expensive option, with consultants putting the pricetag at $10.5 billion.

Concept 1, the only option that accommodates all the projected growth in bus travel through 2040, costs $10.5 billion. Image: Port Authority [PDF]
Concept 1, the only option that accommodates all the projected growth in bus travel through 2040 without moving some buses off-site, is projected to cost $10.5 billion. The yellow high-rise could help finance some of the project’s construction. Image: PANYNJ [PDF]
The other options would relocate inter-city buses to an unspecified bus terminal elsewhere. All five would add bus staging areas to reduce traffic on surface streets, and most would require construction of an interim facility to handle passengers while the bus terminal is torn down and rebuilt. The least expensive option of the bunch, at $7.5 billion, would actually handle fewer passengers than the existing terminal.

Why the high costs? The structural slabs that make up bus ramps and decks are deteriorating and will need to be replaced completely in 15 to 25 years.

“The heaviest structural steel pieces made in the world today will be required for this project, in the thousand of tons,” said Mark Gladden, a project executive at Skanska. He said there are only two places in the world that manufacture this type of steel, which will have to be custom-ordered.

Building ramps and structures that can accommodate thousands of buses each day above the portals to the Lincoln Tunnel, all while keeping existing passengers moving during construction, is a tall task. “There has been some comparison to high-rises and parking garages,” Gladden said. “That is a comparison that should not be made.”

Gladden compared the bus terminal replacement to the UPS Worldport in Louisville, Kentucky, which handles virtually all of the shipping company’s domestic air freight. Built 15 years ago, he said, it cost $850 million. Taking inflation and construction cost increases into account, the project would likely cost $1.7 billion today. Moving the project to New York, with its higher construction costs, would double the price tag to $3.4 billion. The UPS project didn’t have the steel requirements and logistical challenges posed by operating a bus terminal in Midtown Manhattan, Gladden said, which contribute to the additional costs.

Gladden added that East Side Access and the Second Avenue Subway, multi-billion dollar projects under the management of many of the same consultants working on the Port Authority Bus Terminal, serve fewer people than the bus terminal. The bus terminal, built for 150,000 daily passengers, now handles 232,000, about as many as Grand Central Terminal. That number will reach as high as 337,000 by 2040.

“We recognize that projects of this magnitude and this complexity right at the very beginning result in sticker shock,” Gladden said. “We have a high level of confidence that this estimate, at this point in the program development, reflects an accurate or reasonably accurate cost.”

Port Authority commissioners, experiencing said sticker shock, were skeptical. Chief among them was Commissioner Kenneth Lipper, who said the contingency and consulting costs included in the estimates were above and beyond what are typical elsewhere. “These numbers are subject to question,” he said. “It seems this project is more like a five- or six-billion project than a 10- or 11-billion project.”

Lipper said that with so much development spread far from rail stations in New Jersey, buses are the best option for most commuters. The terminal already handles more cross-Hudson passengers than NJ Transit rail and PATH combined. Penn Station has its own capacity issues, Lipper noted, and the resulting constraints on cross-Hudson travel mean even the $15 billion Gateway rail tunnel project, if completed, wouldn’t be able to pick up the slack from the bus terminal.

“No adequate rail solution exists as a substitute for the bus terminal,” Lipper said.

Lipper also said the authority should trim other projects from its capital program and sell non-transportation real estate, including the World Trade Center or even the current bus terminal site, to help finance construction. Ultimately, the project will likely require assistance from federal, state and even local governments, said Port Authority Director of Planning and Regional Development Andrew Lynn.

Commissioners agreed that the authority must replace the bus terminal, but there wasn’t consensus about much else today. “It can’t wait any longer,” said Chair John Degnan. “We need a commitment to move forward.” Vice Chair Scott Rechler reminded board members about the World Trade Center transportation hub fiasco and raised a word of caution about rushing into such an expensive project too quickly.

In the end, Rechler and Degnan agreed that the board will create a new subcommittee dedicated to rebuilding the bus terminal. Staff said the agency would continue to develop more alternatives.

Stay tuned.

  • I have a few very basic questions that aren’t being justified in the PABT planning:

    1) Why do all the buses need to terminate at the PABT? Would it not be better to continue some buses onto dedicated lanes cross-town. This would bring many commuters closer to their destinations, drastically reduce construction costs, and make cross-Manhattan bus services, through the Queens Midtown tunnel, feasible. Some bus layover space could be paid for and accommodated in the ConEd site redevelopment.

    2) Why are such complicated ramp structures required? If that much extra bus traffic is expected, one of the Lincoln tunnel tubes should be dedicated to buses. They’re no need to reconstruct ramps in Manhattan to allow counterflow operation or easy PABT access to more than one tube.

    3) Can the number of platforms for buses be reduced by improving the speed of boarding an alighting? Could money be saved by requiring some commuter buses to have more than one door?

  • I used to commute by bus via PABT for a few years.

    Point #1 is absolutely correct. Getting to PABT is just step 1, if there were an option for an east side drop off, many people would take that.

    Point #2 is a bit complicated. Many lanes are dedicated to only buses during peak hours, but they flip the direction of the tunnels during the day to match the peak loads. You need some flexibility to route buses and cars into the various tunnels.

    Point #3 loading and unloading isn’t the problem, it’s the bottle neck in the tunnel. They put extra buses in PABT for the commute back to NJ, so the extra gates allow for storage as well as parallel loading. Unloading actually doesn’t happen at the gates, there is a pull through lane that expidites things now.

  • Back to #2, I understand that counterflow operation is presently used in the tunnels, but why is that the assumption going forward? I’ve heard of proposals to dedicate one tube to two-way bus operation 24/7 which could save a lot of money and time. Even if 3-1 counterflow is required for traffic in the other tubes, a much simpler ramp structure could be built.

  • Bolwerk

    Not to say #3 is impossible, but here’s a problem: those buses function sort of as commuter buses. The are configured to seat as many people as possible.

    Change that and you can change the speed of boarding and alighting. However, many of those buses do travel of pretty long distances so maybe that’d be immensely uncomfortable? You can be standing for much longer than you’re expected to stand on, say, an NYC bus or a subway.

  • That’s exactly why I put in the qualifier ‘some’.

  • Bolwerk

    Re Lipper’s comments, does anyone address the feasibility of HBLR to 42nd Street? HBLR comes pretty close to the tunnel. Those vehicles probably hold 3x as many riders as an NJ Transit bus, and HBLR doesn’t exactly have a shabby network at this point. It’s even, ahem, underutilized. It’s clearly not an “adequate” solution by itself, but it can be a part of a bigger solution. It can probably be done without interrupting the XBL lane at all.

    Yes, New York City and New Jersey would have to work together. That’s probably the only impossibility. 🙁 No need to have all the bells and whistles of Vision42 either.

  • ahwr

    Do the tubes never need to be shut for maintenance? Could that be limited to late night hours only for the next fifty years when you have few enough buses that you can run on the street, or for however long the life of the structure you’re building is going to be?

  • Rob Durchola

    In response to #s 1 and 2 – In addition to layover space, which is critical. only a few rotes could be accommodated on a 42nd St. crosstown routing (or another routing). Clearly, the 700 buses in a peak hour could not be accommodated. But the big problem is what would happen if any single bus has a long dwell time on the bus lane (for example, a large crowd boarding or a the need to accommodate a patron in a wheelchair). Then, all the buses behind it would be delayed.

    Also, at least the bus loading platforms at the PABT provide some protection from the elements (including some heat and air conditioning). A crosstown bus lane would not provide this. Even with projected real time arrival, there can be last minute delays for buses.

    Finally, running buses crosstown is very costly and could lead to increased fares. For example, if it takes 20 minutes for a bus to make a round trip from 8th Avenue to 1st Avenue and return (probably conservative for a heavily used bus lane) and a given bus route operates every five minutes in the peak period, then extending the bus route to the East Side would require at least four additional buses per hour.

    It is actually much more efficient for people to use teh existing NYCTA bus and subway routtes to get crosstown; though a joint fare structure between NJ Transit and NYCTA would help.

    As for the ramps, politically (on both sides of the Hudson), it has been impossible to dedicated the center tube for buses. Also, buses coming to/from local streets in Weehawken cannot easily access the center tube.

  • For such a heavily used bus corridor, a bus lane would include pull outs for stops. Effectively, two lanes in the peak direction would be needed. As long as enough curb space was available for stops, long dwell times shouldn’t be a problem. Buses and stops can also be designed to make boarding, even with wheelchairs, much faster than it is today.

    Operational costs are a concern, but aren’t that large. If 2000 buses per day took an extra 20 minutes crossing midtown, an extra 250,000 service hours per year would have to be provided, or about $40 million per year. If ~$500 million in capital costs could be saved by doing so, it’d be worth it, even when discounting the potential benefit of a direct route crosstown to customers.

  • BSPABNY

    Alarm bells should be going off when a construction/design firm makes statements like this so early in the process:

    “The heaviest structural steel pieces made in the world today will be required for this project, in the thousand of tons,” said Mark Gladden, a project executive at Skanska. He said there are only two places in the world that manufacture this type of steel, which will have to be custom-ordered.”

    Then design the thing so it doesn’t require custom-ordered steel! I wasn’t at the meeting, but I really hope someone challenged Mr. Gladden on this point.

    Also, I object to this:

    “The bus terminal, built for 150,000 daily passengers, now handles 232,000, about as many as Grand Central Terminal. That number will reach as high as 337,000 by 2040.”

    Says who? We have a choice as a region about the investments we want to make to support future growth in a way that’s consistent with our values. If we decide that we don’t want 105,000 more people to commute into Manhattan by bus in 2040, let’s think about other ways to accommodate these people, maybe in a more cost-effective and environmentally-friendly manner. Just like we decided not to build two out of three cross-Manhattan expressways to accommodate unstoppable and preordained future growth in person-trips by auto.

    I’d like to see a range of cost projections associated with terminals of different scales, matched to various risk-adjusted estimates of future demand for bus travel to/from Manhattan. Could we “get by” with a smaller terminal at this site that doesn’t require custom-made gargantuan steel, assuming the growth could be accommodated by other modes and other bus terminals, and maybe assuming regional growth is spread among NJ, Metro-North, and Long Island? It just takes some moderation and creative thinking.

    Maybe send some buses (not all) across town or downtown via avenues. Have some buses terminate at a new transfer point in Secaucus. And so on. Why do we have to assume every single person in the future will want to continue to commute by bus to PABT? And can NYCT subway accommodate all these additional people at the 42nd Street A/C/E/1/2/3/7/N/R/Q/S station plus NYCT buses? Are there other spillover effects of a decision to build an oversized PABT, like additional investments needed at Lincoln Tunnel and XBL?

  • Bobberooni

    PABT (and GCT and Penn Station) work because a large fraction of the people arriving at those terminals can walk to work. The subway system only has capacity to accommodate a certain fraction of them.

    Growth projections for PABT are based on assumptions of growth projections for NJ. Development that doesn’t go to NJ because of inability to get through the tunnel will go to Westchester, Long Island and beyond. Looking at a density map, NJ is currently the closest place to Manhattan with the lowest density, hence most potential for development. But maybe the realities of Hudson River crossings make it more cost effective to send that development elsewhere.

    As for spreading jobs outside of Manhattan… apparently the business climate has only desired a certain amount of that. Manhattan continues to grow.

    Cross-town buses? How could 42nd St. ever accommodate the crush of buses coming from NJ? It’s a solid line of buses clear from PABT out the the NJ Turnpike in Secaucus, all traveling about 20mph.

  • Henry

    The issue is the lack of an appropriate place to put it once it reaches Manhattan. Either you have to weave around the Lincoln Tunnel, the East River Tunnels, the West Side Yard, or the 7 Line, all of which don’t sound particularly cheap or easy.

  • “How could 42nd St. ever accommodate the crush of buses coming from NJ?”

    Good question, let’s ask.

  • Bolwerk

    The appropriate place to put it is the street, preferably dedicating much of a street, preferably 42nd Street, to the operation. But at the least an SBS-like lane would do the trick. It should be high-capacity and relatively cheap-ish, if slow. Though no slower than XBL.

    Maybe it’s not possible to even run HBLR through the tunnel (e.g., clearance issues), but it’d at least be nice to hear why something this glaringly simple can’t be considered.

  • BSPABNY

    I’m not disputing that Manhattan continues to grow, and should. I have nothing against NJ, but given that NY is moving ahead with East Side Access for LIRR and Penn Station Access for MNR (admittedly both flawed and incomplete projects), both Long Island and the Metro-North area are going to be better positioned to accommodate the next 50 years of this region’s growth in population and jobs. In order to remain competitive, NJ and the NYC business community need to figure out how to get people across the river more cost effectively. (Oh wait, after decades of study, it seems we’ve repeatedly come to the conclusion that rail is the most cost-effective option for cross-Hudson traffic.)

    Think of PABT as LaGuardia. Use slot restrictions that match supply to available capacity, raise fares (and access fees) until people decide it’s worth their while to switch to another route or mode, switch jobs, or move to Westchester. Then bond against the increased access fees, build the bus terminal equivalent of JFK/Newark out at Secaucus or wherever, and absorb future growth there.

    I’ll concede that running cross-town is a terrible idea, but a decent number of buses entering Manhattan from Orange and Rockland Counties, among other places, skip PABT and run down 9th or 7th Avenue, or enter Manhattan via the GWB and then run down the east side. Could more do this? Not ALL, just SOME.

  • WoodyinNYC

    How about a harder look at dispersed stations instead of an $11 Billion Mega Terminal.

    The existing terminal at the George Washington Bridge seems grossly underused. Are white people from New Jersey still afraid to ride the A train? LOL.

    Could buses cross the G W Bridge and go down the Harlem River Drive to 125th? There a terminal could give access to the coming Second Avenue Subway and the Lexington line. (Would give a powerful incentive to complete Phase II of the SAS.)

    Why not more buses using the Holland Tunnel, with a new terminal off Canal St and near a multitude of subway lines?

    Or how much more than $11 Billion would a new Hudson River tunnel for buses cost with a new terminal, well, anywhere. But around W. 14th St is where I’d start to look for space, before all the vacant warehouses are gentrified out of our price range. LOL.

  • Larry Littlefield

    More people who work in Manhattan are deciding to move to NJ rather than Long Island. Maybe they shouldn’t, as corrupt as Long Island and the LIRR are. After all, no one is accommodating all the two-seat riders of Brooklyn and Queens.

    At the same time, large companies are opening second offices in New Jersey, for NJ commuters. This has been going on for some time. How much would a train line along the Bergen Arches to Jersey City cost?

  • Greg Costikyan

    Given this horrendous cost, yes, looking at a more dispersed system makes sense to me. The GWB station doesn’t help that much though; it makes sense for commuters from Bergen County, but that’s only a fraction of those commuting from New Jersey.

    However, building a bus terminal at the Secaucus Interchange (where land is not too expensive) would allow commuters to switch to NJ Transit trains into Penn Station, which would be more convenient for those commuting to jobs in the Manhattan South commercial district, anyway.

    Similarly, a bus terminal at Journal Square in Jersey City would give commuters to jobs in lower Manhattan another option.

    This might take enough pressure off the PABT to allow a less gold-plated rehab there, at a lower total price.

  • Rob Durchola

    Regarding Journal Square and commuting to lower Manhattan from New Jersey:

    1. There is already a bus terminal at Journal Square where bus users can connect to PATH. It is almost at peak period capacity (except for one bus lane closed by the PA police for “security reasons” since a short time after the 9/11 tragedy.

    2. Road access to the bus terminal is very poor, especially for buses coming from Bergen and Passaic Counties.

    3. From Central New Jersey there are numerous bus routes that operate either directly into lower Manhattan (but the streets there cannot handle more peak period transit) or to the Grove Street PATH station in Jersey City.

  • Rob Durchola

    Re Dispersed Terminals:

    1. Yes, the George Washington Bridge bus station is underused and yes, fear of the A train may cause some bus users to avoid it. However, the bigger problem is the unreliability of service (even worse than at the PABT, especially in the AM, because any snafu on the Cross-Bronx expressway, a frequent occurrence, causes major service dealys, both inbound and outbound.

    The PA is currently renovating the George Washington Bridge bus station. Maybe a renovated terminal will increase demand for bus service across the bridge.

    2. Use Holland Tunnel – The tunnel is at capacity in the rush hour and cannot support a dedicated bus lane. Where is there land for a bus terminal on the Manhattan side? And, as noted in my response just posted to Mr. Costikyan above, there is already freequent bus service to lower Manhattan (and to PATH) from Central Jersey. Access to the Holland Tunnel and PATH from Bergen and Passaic Counties is very poor.

    3. Using a new tunnel to a new terminal at, perhaps, 14th Street.- The largest job markets in Manhattan are around Grand Central and Times Square. Thus, many PABT users can walk to work from the terminal. After that, you go to lower Manhattan for large number of jobs. 14th Street is simply not where the jobs are (at least by Manhattan standards.

  • Greg Costikyan

    I take your point re: Journal Square. Yes, the ramps from 1-9 and the Turnpike extension are nearby, but bringing them to Journal Square would involve the kind of destruction of the city center that would make Jane Jacobs turn in her grave. Maybe something could be done routing them instead into Erie/Pavonia/Newport. Probably not a lot of undeveloped land there left, unfortunately, but the area is ghastly enough that tearing something down to build a bus station would probably be an improvement. (And not ghastly in the sense of poor, but ghastly in the sense that unplanned development has created a pretty unattractive area in what could have been a very nice pedestrian district.)

    Yes, I know many bus lines go to Grove Street, but given that they all have to deal with discharging passengers on the streets, and that highway access requires moving through crowded streets in ruh hour traffic, it’s far from a major transportation hub. (I used to live just a few blocks from Grove Street).

  • Greg Costikyan

    Actually…. The four largest office districts in America are, in order, Midtown Manhattan, Chicago. Downtown Manhattan, and Manhattan South (34th through 14th streets). There are -lots- of jobs that would be accessible from a 14th street terminus (albeit 23rd St or so would be better).

  • BSPABNY

    Instead of plowing through downtown JC, what about building a new bus terminal at the east end of the Whitpenn Bridge with new ramps from NJ 7, Truck 1/9, and maybe Pulaski Skyway, and connect it to a new PATH station? Extend 33rd-JSQ trains to the new station.

  • ahwr

    How many buses do you plan to send there? How many more people can PATH move during peak hour?

  • BSPABNY

    I was thinking of this more as a local solution to Journal Square terminating buses, and to avoid having to build a terminal in the Newport area. Perhaps it could capture a relatively small portion of commuter trips from points west and south. A terminal at Secaucus probably would be better suited as a transfer point (to the 7 and NJT rail) for intercity buses, but maybe some of those could be served here as well.

  • Bolwerk

    Unless it disperses through Midtown, it probably doesn’t do a lot of good.

  • neroden

    How much would it cost? Depends on the corruption level. Should be simple to reinstate a line which once existed.

  • neroden

    Yep.

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