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New York’s Terminal Blues

from the magazine

New York’s Terminal Blues

Building a new bus depot might be the infrastructure challenge of a generation. Spring 2017
Infrastructure and energy
New York

New York City’s Port Authority Bus Terminal, the world’s biggest, is critically necessary to the city and the region: it ushers more than 232,000 people into and out of Manhattan every day, including nearly 5 percent of the borough’s private-sector workforce. But the terminal is universally loathed. Built in 1950, it is obsolete and too small to accommodate growth: with no room for new buses, it’s forced to ignore calls for more service. A new terminal would seem the obvious solution—and the Port Authority, jointly overseen by the states of New York and New Jersey, has proposed one. Compared with other major New York infrastructure projects, from new subway lines to a new water tunnel, constructing a new bus terminal looks relatively easy.

Yet building a new Manhattan bus terminal would likely be the toughest thing that New York and New Jersey undertake in a generation. The Port Authority wants to erect a structure near the existing one, on Eighth Avenue on Manhattan’s West Side, near midtown’s abundant jobs, so that New Jersey residents don’t have to endure a second commute on the subway once they get to Manhattan. But this would entail ripping up a huge swath of already-congested Manhattan, which may be politically infeasible as well as flawed urban planning. Solving this puzzle will be crucial to whether New York can keep growing without sacrificing its residents’ quality of life, as well as its commuters’.

Most people coming to Manhattan each day take a train. Of the 1.4 million riders, most of them commuters, who entered Manhattan below 60th Street from the north—that is, from northern Manhattan, the Bronx, or suburbs in New York and Connecticut—on an average fall day in 2015, 67 percent arrived by subway or commuter rail; only 2 percent came by bus. Of the nearly 1.9 million people traveling from Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island, 77 percent took the subway or rail, with another 2 percent arriving by bus.

A full 38 percent of New Jersey’s nearly 568,000 travelers take a bus, nearly the same share as the percentage taking a train. Put another way, of the nearly 279,000 people who come into Manhattan each day via bus, nearly 215,000 of them ride from New Jersey. Most take buses managed by New Jersey Transit, the state’s public-transportation agency, and arrive at the Port Authority terminal.

This difference in mode of transport is both a by-product of history and a result of current economics. New York’s outer boroughs and northern and eastern suburbs developed before the automobile age. Residents built them up around train lines that people took to work then, and still use now. As residents moved farther north and east of the city, seeking cheaper housing and fresher air, they could take advantage of train lines that private developers had originally constructed for long-distance travel, repurposed in the airline age for local travel.

New Jersey never had such robust commuter-rail infrastructure into New York. As early as 1925, the New York Times reported that “the enormous increase in the number of commuters on Long Island and in Westchester in the last few years . . . has not been a matter of chance. The public has found it easier to travel to the east or to the north” of Manhattan to live “rather than to the west”—that is, to Jersey. But as A. W. Coffin, North Jersey’s Transit Commission secretary, told the newspaper, with Westchester and Long Island “solidly built up,” northern New Jersey “is the logical expansion of New York. . . . We only have to provide for New Jersey the same facilities for commuting that are enjoyed by these more favored areas and the population will follow.” The population did come, but instead of laying down more rail capacity across the Hudson, regional planners built a second tunnel for cars—the Lincoln Tunnel, completed in 1957—to supplement the Holland Tunnel, completed in 1927.

Economic trends over the last several decades have given Manhattan a commuting surge from New Jersey that was largely unanticipated. In the mid-twentieth century, developers designed many northern New Jersey suburbs around cities such as Newark, Elizabeth, and Paterson. But as manufacturing cratered during the last third of the century, jobs in those cities vanished, forcing more people to come into Manhattan to work. More recently, planners thought that cities such as Hoboken and Jersey City would grow middle-class finance jobs as the industry sought to cut costs by leaving expensive Manhattan. But though these cities are doing well as cheaper alternatives to Manhattan and as urban centers in their own right, many of their higher-paying financial positions have either disappeared in Wall Street consolidations or migrated overseas. Since 1990, employment in New Jersey’s three counties nearest Manhattan, including in its largest cities, has increased just 3 percent, while the number of jobs in New York City has risen 30 percent. Commuting across the Hudson has concurrently soared, with rail and subway traffic up 52 percent and bus traffic up 54 percent. And as New Jersey has itself become costlier, commuters working in Manhattan have moved deeper south and west into New Jersey—and some into Pennsylvania—adding yet more bus traffic into Manhattan.

New York benefits from its New Jersey commuters. They pay $3 billion in income taxes to New York State annually, and they provide a highly educated workforce to Manhattan employers, without putting further demand on the city’s housing stock. The West Side bus terminal, though, can’t handle their numbers. Even when the Port Authority finished building the terminal in 1950, it was an imperfect solution. Dense Manhattan, east of Eighth Avenue, where most office commerce took place and where most commuters were going, was already too crowded to accommodate a large facility for bus commuters. In 1927, the city’s transportation board proposed an underground bus terminal beneath Bryant Park, on Sixth Avenue, to receive traffic from the planned Lincoln Tunnel. But 42nd Street merchants fought off the plan, charging that it would cause congestion. By 1939, the Port Authority archives report, “growing interstate bus traffic was causing chaos in New York City.” Private buses were dropping passengers off at eight separate midtown terminals, as well as on the streets. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia outlawed bus terminals east of Eighth Avenue after 1941 and asked the Port Authority to explore building a “union terminal” before the ban took effect.

After several years of fits and starts, the Port Authority got to work in 1949 on the current facility at Eighth Avenue and 42nd Street, as well as its network of aboveground ramps that bring bus traffic to and from the Lincoln Tunnel. The Port Authority Bus Terminal opened a year later, at a cost of $24 million. Starting in 1975 and for the next four years, the Port Authority expanded the terminal north a block. It now encompasses Eighth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets, where commuters can either walk to work or take train lines from Eighth Avenue or Times Square to get anywhere in the city.

“A full 38 percent of Jersey’s nearly 568,000 commuters take a bus, nearly the same as the percentage taking a train.”

Unlike Grand Central, the bus terminal has never been a beloved transit hub. The Port Authority built it not as a grand space but as a utilitarian one. The space has always been troubled—and has brought trouble to the neighborhood around it. Though 92 percent of the people coming through the terminal are daily commuters, it also serves 19,200 long-distance passengers daily on Greyhound and other bus lines. Most long-distance bus travelers are just looking for a cheap, safe trip, but homeless adults, runaway children—easy prey for pimps and drug dealers—and fleeing criminals also rely on the buses. Crime and disorder in the area have been a persistent problem. “You didn’t feel safe walking at night” decades ago, says Lenore Manzella, who has lived just a block from the back of the bus depot since 1974. The Port Authority terminal and its surrounding neighborhood have benefited from New York’s dramatic crime reductions over the last quarter-century, but the terminal is still not a pleasant place.

The terminal does its job as a transport center, though. As bus travel has increased, from 6,830 commuter buses a day in 1991 to 7,280 two decades later, and from 350 to 520 intercity buses over the same period, bus passengers have turned the Lincoln Tunnel and its approach roads in New Jersey into a mass-transit conveyance—less efficient than trains, true, but far speedier than the 31,000 extra daily cars that it would take to carry the same number of people into the city. Though it often doesn’t seem so today, “the people who planned it were extremely thoughtful,” says Diannae C. Ehler, the engineer managing both the terminal and the tunnel.

Like much of America’s infrastructure, though, and in particular the country’s less well-built twentieth-century infrastructure, the Port Authority Bus Terminal is past its prime. Even without growth, it needs a structural overhaul. Handling 117,000 tons’ worth of buses every day has weakened structural slabs. Plus, “this building leaks,” Ehler says flatly. No one knows when that started.

The terminal can’t keep up with current demand. Commuter and long-distance buses some- times clog local streets when the terminal gets too crowded for them to enter. New long-distance bus firms, such as Bolt and Megabus, have started up in the past decade, competing with cars, trains, and airplanes to offer frequent service to Boston, Washington, and other mid-range points. But these entrants have never secured space at the no-room-at-the-inn terminal, having to do their pickups and drop-offs on New York streets instead.

The terminal has zero room for daytime storage of buses, so Jersey bus drivers often must head into Manhattan, drop off their morning passengers there, and then go back empty to Jersey, only to return to Gotham hours later, for the evening commute. And the Port Authority terminal is too small for double-decker buses; even modern-size buses, longer than 1950s-era models, must turn slowly in the terminal’s tight corners, creating more congestion. And with today’s passenger volume, customers must line up uncomfortably in cramped hallways to wait to board their rides home.

Responding to complaints from commuters and neighbors, the bus terminal’s managers have spent $90 million over the past three years to make some modest improvements. The terminal’s brand-new bathrooms are better than those in most domestic airports, and refurbished ceilings create a brighter atmosphere. The Port Authority has attacked the leaks, getting the number of buckets on the floor down from 24 to fewer than ten. New fans and air-conditioning units help cool hot platforms (or make them a little less hot, anyway). And managers have added maintenance staff to keep the facility clean—not an easy undertaking in a public building that many vagrants use for basic hygiene. The Port Authority has also encouraged a higher-quality mix of retailers to set up shop in the terminal, making the atmosphere less down-market. Starbucks and Duane Reade now have outposts there, as does Carlo’s Bake Shop, famous from the Food Network.

Both inside and outside the terminal, Port Authority engineers have jury-rigged methods to speed traffic flow. Terminal managers have a no-tolerance policy toward buses that idle in the terminal. If bus drivers arrive early and back up other traffic, managers kick them out, maintaining constant flow. This change in policy hasn’t caused more traffic on the streets, as might be expected, but less, as drivers and their supervisors have learned to get the buses to arrive right on time. Port Authority managers have given an entire floor of departure and arrival gates to New Jersey Transit buses, so that Jersey bosses can better control flow, moving gates around as necessary. And terminal managers are experimenting with better ways to employ the depot’s 186 loading positions to handle its 615 peak-hour afternoon departures, including repurposing gates that usually handle long-distance traffic to serve commuters when fewer long-distance buses are operating.

Managers are also directing traffic through the Lincoln Tunnel from New Jersey more effectively. The Port Authority has had a bus-only lane along the New Jersey Turnpike to the tunnel since 1970. But more recently, it has told drivers to use specific lanes and ramps for particular destinations, thus resulting in fewer diversions to Manhattan streets when bus drivers aren’t in the right position to go directly to their ramp and to the terminal. The Port Authority has also worked with the city to expand a bus-only lane in Manhattan to 42nd Street, helping ease the journey for bus drivers who aren’t coming from the Lincoln Tunnel and reducing congestion on the avenues and streets around the terminal. These changes have brought results: the Port Authority now moves 252 more buses through the Lincoln Tunnel and terminal between 4 PM and 7 PM.

New Jersey Transit has gotten better at handling delays, too—or, more accurately, technology has helped its passengers grapple with those delays more successfully. The transit agency now offers customers apps to track their buses, enabling commuters, say, to stay at the office later if they know that their bus home will be delayed.

Still, there’s only so much that Port Authority engineers and operational managers can do to support current demand. “Things operationally have stabilized,” says Ehler, “but still require intense management.” Jesse Broome, who commutes each day from Springfield, New Jersey, has a different view. “The Port Authority, to be honest, is a mess. The way they have people line up for the bus . . . there’s a delay, those lines just get backed up, and it’s incredible how many people are then packed into small spaces waiting for buses,” he notes. And Port Authority planners expect more growth, with demand reaching 9,100 daily buses and 855 peak-hour buses by 2040.

It’s understandable, then, that New Jersey politicians, with half a controlling interest in the Port Authority, want a new bus terminal. But the Port Authority can’t build a new terminal on the land that it’s already using for the existing one—doing so would disrupt life intolerably, and for too long, for its hundreds of thousands of daily commuters. If rebuilding on the current site is impossible, New Jersey politicians still want to construct any new terminal nearby, so that it will be near the subway lines—and Manhattan’s jobs. At a Port Authority board meeting in March 2016, New Jersey Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg said that commuters “need a new bus terminal on the West Side of Manhattan so that the . . . ridership that goes through that building every day can get a one-seat ride.” After relentless pressure from Weinberg and her colleagues, and after two years of study, the Port Authority agreed at the same meeting to build “near the current facility.”

Unfortunately, everywhere “near the current facility” is already occupied—indeed, it has become some of the densest real estate on earth. Midtown east of Eighth Avenue is out of the question, as it was before 1950. Midtown west of Eighth Avenue has changed since 1975, when the Port Authority last expanded on an empty lot and in a neighborhood that welcomed the new construction, when it cared about it at all. In 1976, a Times writer praised the earlier expansion project as a “sign of life.” At that time, the Port Authority’s nearest neighbor to the west was the McGraw-Hill Building, built four decades previously as an experiment in whether executives would want to work west of Eighth Avenue. McGraw-Hill abandoned it in 1970, decamping for the more pleasant neighborhood of Rockefeller Center. Today, the McGraw-Hill Building is landmarked and populated with small-business tenants and a major private-sector employees’ union. Developers have built high-rise apartment towers to the west of the Port Authority terminal, as well. The area is pulsing with vitality. (See “West Side Story,” Winter 2014.)

There’s a risk that the Port Authority will use eminent domain simply to take the property it needs to build a new terminal. It is impractical for the authority to wield such powers to condemn a new high-rise; what’s left to grab forcibly is the older mid-rise neighborhood of Clinton and Hell’s Kitchen: a church, a pizza shop, a fishmonger, an Italian restaurant, a spice store with a cat lurking inside, and other small businesses. Their customers live in older, cheaper apartment buildings along Ninth Avenue and its side streets.

In April 2016, a month after the Port Authority announced its plan, New York’s politicians expressed their opposition at a meeting in the Metro Baptist Church, across the street from the bus terminal. Manhattan borough president Gale Brewer noted that if the city is unhappy with the eventual proposals, the project “will never happen.” In a more conciliatory vein, Lenore Manzella acknowledges that “everybody can’t live in the city” but goes on to say that “this eminent domain is very troubling. People can’t combat it.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio got involved early in the issue. That same April, his deputy mayor wrote to the Port Authority, voicing concern about its “apparent willingness to engage in the use of eminent domain to acquire private property” and wondering why the agency “might risk spending a year or more on architectural designs when we have not settled fundamental questions such as site selection.” And in early 2017, Hell’s Kitchen’s Community Board 4, an arm of local government, set up two special subcommittees to track the Port Authority’s plans. “We’re all here because we’re very concerned about the neighborhood,” observed Tiffany Triplett Hankel, a pastor at the Metro Baptist Church, at a meeting to establish the committees.

The Port Authority’s central problem was on display last year, when it launched a design contest for a new terminal. The jury picked five finalists—architects tasked with avoiding any charge that their plans, if built, would sweep away a thriving neighborhood. But the finalists couldn’t accomplish that task while sticking to real-world considerations. One architectural team proposed a terminal six stories underground, “deep enough in rock not to impact existing buildings, subways, or other transportation infrastructure.” Going underground would require new underground ramps—essentially, a new network of bus tunnels underneath midtown going to the Lincoln Tunnel. The complexities of the project would make it rival East Side Access, the New York State Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s crosstown project, in cost and schedule overruns. (See “Fifteen Stories Under,” Autumn 2015.)

A competing team located its imaginary terminal well west of Ninth Avenue, requiring construction of a new subway station by an entirely separate government entity—the MTA. Even then, the designers dispensed with having intercity buses at the terminal, which would be smaller than the current one. Bryony Chamberlain, director of New York’s Megabus operations, worries that, even decades from now, her company might not be able to operate from a New York terminal. Megabus currently oversees the departure of 60 to 80 daily buses from a city curb. “The ultimate plan which would be best for everybody is to have the operators in one place,” she says, citing “ease for the customers” to transfer to other buses as well as to subways. “In the end, people still want to come to a central point.”

Don’t blame the designers. They did the Port Authority, as well as the city, a service in pointing out the infeasibility of building a new bus station, let alone a new network of ramps, whether aboveground or belowground, anywhere near the existing facility.

Furthermore, to realize the designs would cost a scary $7.5 billion to $10.5 billion—more than twice what New York State paid to build the first three stops of the Second Avenue subway. The Port Authority has said that it will pay for some of the cost of its new bus terminal through operational savings at a more modern facility. But the bus terminal lost $106 million in 2016, against $42 million in revenues. Paying the interest costs, even on $6.5 billion worth of new debt—assuming that new real-estate and retail development defray the rest—would require $162.5 million in new annual payments.

This additional debt burden would require not just cost cuts but new revenues. Trimming budgets is politically difficult. Policing costs at the terminal—the hardest to cut because of New Jersey politicians’ dependence on union support—were $27.2 million in 2015, consuming more than half its revenues. As for taking in more money, the Port Authority could increase the heavily subsidized gate fees that it charges for bus operators, but making that move comes with its own pitfalls. The biggest operator, New Jersey Transit, would, in turn, have to increase the subsidies that it gets from New Jersey taxpayers. And, as Megabus’s Chamberlain warns, bus operators can pay only so much before their customers start making different choices.

Facing community opposition and the impracticalities of the five proffered designs, the Port Authority abandoned its competition and swore the five finalists to secrecy—an unsettling echo of its actions after 9/11, when it announced six design finalists for a new World Trade Center complex, just months after the attacks destroyed the original site, only to drop the designs swiftly after they met with public derision. In February 2017, the Port Authority backtracked somewhat from its commitment to build a new bus terminal near the current one, saying that it would review its previous planning effort and work on “identifying an optimal location.” Though the Port Authority has budgeted $3.5 billion to build a new bus terminal in the next ten years—a fraction of the cost—it has also approved $337 million for “priority repairs” at the existing station over the same decade, including shoring up structural slabs. These separate projects represent another tacit admission that groundbreaking on a new terminal won’t happen anytime soon.

A shiny new bus terminal in Manhattan seems an unworkable idea—but a more plausible option exists. The Port Authority could build a terminal in Secaucus, New Jersey, on the coast of Manhattan, and the New York–run MTA could extend the Number 7 subway train there, bringing commuters to Manhattan. The Port Authority admits that a Number 7 line extension to Jersey could “reduce demand for buses . . . by as much as 25 percent, but at present the idea is not part of the planning agenda for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.”

A New Jersey bus terminal in Secaucus, built in a far less dense location, would ease pressure on the New York terminal, allowing it to reduce operations while it undergoes major renovation and to give more space in the long run to intercity bus operators such as Megabus. More ambitiously, New York and New Jersey could build better rail capacity, both across the Hudson River and throughout New Jersey. (As for Jersey pols worried that their constituents will lose their “one-seat” ride: only 51 percent of bus commuters enjoy such a ride. The rest take another bus or a car from their homes and a subway when they get to New York.) Any of these alternatives would require New York and New Jersey to work together, and not at loggerheads, as they too often do today.

Many would prefer a train ride from New Jersey over a new bus terminal. “I’m more of a train person, to be honest,” says Broome, the Springfield commuter, who previously lived in Summit, New Jersey. “There was pretty good train service from Summit,” he says. But Springfield, where he moved two years ago to afford a house “with a whole yard and everything”—he has a young daughter—“is basically buses.” Broome is little different from the early commuters of the 1920s, who moved away from New York’s increasingly expensive commuting core in search of an affordable and livable home but who never got the transit infrastructure that they expected would follow. If he were to move again, Broome says, he’d consider relocating nearer to the train—but he’d think also about “whether I want to work in Manhattan at all.”

Research for this article was supported by the Brunie Fund for New York Journalism. This is the sixth in a series of articles about the Port Authority.

Photo: Nearly a quarter of a million people pass through the terminal daily. (RICHARD B. LEVINE/NEWSCOM)

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