How to fix the vile Port Authority Bus Terminal

Is 2024 the year that we finally start fixing the worst transit hub in New York City?

While New Yorkers love to grouse, we’re living in an era of impressive transit upgrades. We’ve seen the No. 7 extension to Hudson Yards, the first phase of the Second Ave. subway, the new LIRR-to-Grand Central service, Moynihan Train Hall and a whole new LaGuardia Airport all come on line, providing improved mobility and better service to millions of residents and commuters.

But a key piece of the regional transit system remains mired in the bad old days: the Port Authority Bus Terminal (PABT), which comedian John Oliver famously described as the “single worst place on planet Earth.”

Built almost 75 years ago and expanded twice, the PABT serves as a vital connector for our regional transportation system, serving approximately 250,000 commuters daily. Yet the facility lacks the capacity to keep pace with demand or deliver the amenities and services a modern transportation hub should provide.

Rather than acting as a magnet for activity and investment, as Grand Central and the new Moynihan Train Hall have done, the PABT is a deteriorating eyesore that drags down the entire community around it and subjects commuters to daily humiliation.

Thankfully, the Port Authority has been quietly advancing plans for a radical makeover and expansion of the PABT, similar to the transformation of LaGuardia and Terminal A at Newark Airport. A world-class design by Foster Partners would untangle the spaghetti of Lincoln Tunnel approaches and create amenities for commuters and the community alike. The cavernous tunnel on 41st St. running through the middle of the station would become a light-filled atrium with easy access to gates.

The PABT would transform from one of the worst commuter hubs in America to one of the best; an attraction and amenity to support a thriving community and a growing commuter population.

Some may question the need for additional investments in our commuter infrastructure after the pandemic threw a curveball into our travel routines, but in reality, the economies of New York and New Jersey are more connected than ever before. And the PABT is a vital linchpin that makes the regional economy function.

As recent research reveals, one in five jobs in NYC is filled by workers living outside the city. Northern New Jersey represents the largest and fastest-growing share of these commuters, from 276,000 in 1990 to more than 447,000 today, generating more than $61.7 billion in salaries. New Jersey needs New York jobs to support their local communities and New York benefits immensely from these commuters, who contribute $3.9 billion (or 7% of the total revenue) in personal income taxes.

That’s why connections across the Hudson River have become so critical to both states. More than four of every five commuters from New Jersey use public transit, putting immense stress on the five trans-Hudson crossings that carry more than a half million transit trips daily.

Fortunately, the Gateway Program is on track to double rail capacity between New Jersey and Penn Station. But Gateway won’t reach all areas of New Jersey and will barely keep up with demand. Research shows that trans-Hudson peak travel demand by 2050 is likely to be 15% to 32% higher than pre-pandemic.

To meet this demand, we must prioritize modernizing and expanding the PABT.

In order to make it happen, we must overcome the largest stumbling block: funding. The Port Authority and New York City are negotiating over whether the city will approve a tax abatement similar to the one that allowed Moynihan Train Hall to get built. The Port must also step up, and it is by committing more than 70% of the capital — including a $1 billion loan from the federal government to help finance the first phase of construction.

All these commitments need to be locked down as quickly as possible. With the environmental review process well underway, the urgency to find common ground is not just a matter of convenience; it’s a matter of averting costly delays that could threaten the entire project.

In building a megaproject like this, time is never on our side. Construction costs increase, political leadership changes, and windows of opportunity close all too quickly. That’s why it’s time for all the partners to put aside their differences. The cost of inaction far exceeds the price tag of a new PABT.

This isn’t just about investing in a bus terminal; it’s an investment in the economic vitality and competitiveness of the entire region. It’s about acknowledging that the PABT isn’t just a transit center; it’s an economic engine that drives prosperity on both sides of the Hudson.

Wright is the president and CEO of Regional Plan Association

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