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Bus to Nowhere

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Bus to Nowhere

The Port Authority’s latest bus terminal plan meets every need—except that of practicality. February 3, 2021
New York
Economy, finance, and budgets
Infrastructure and energy

The Port Authority recently unveiled its latest proposal in the long-running saga to replace its midtown bus terminal with a new, state-of-the-art facility. There’s no doubt that it needs to be replaced. It’s rundown, lacks access for the disabled, doesn’t accommodate articulated or double-decker buses, and can’t meet current needs, much less projected passenger growth.

Recognizing the need to replace the terminal is one thing; figuring out how to do it has been the problem. The bus terminal’s location, on Eighth Avenue between West 40th and West 42nd Streets, was the outcome of a late 1940s political fight between the Port Authority and master builder Robert Moses. (Moses, who wanted to expand the Greyhound terminal near Penn Station, lost that battle.) The site is ideal because it sits adjacent to the Times Square/Eighth Avenue subway complex, offering New Jersey commuters access to numerous subway lines to make the final leg of their journey to work. At the same time, it provides direct ramps into the Lincoln Tunnel, allowing the tunnel and the terminal to function as a single transportation system funneling buses into and out of Manhattan.

After thorough analysis, the Port Authority has concluded that the terminal can only be located where it is now. But it can’t just shut down the terminal for a few years while it builds a new one. The buses still have to run.

Several years ago, the authority proposed to move the entire terminal west, in a megastructure to be built spanning both Ninth and Tenth Avenues, between West 39th and West 40th Streets. That would have involved seizing privately owned buildings by eminent domain. This aroused the ire of local elected officials and community activists, who were reminded of the devastating effects of earlier rounds of property acquisition for the existing terminal, its ramps, the Lincoln Tunnel, and the tunnel approaches, which demolished huge numbers of homes.

The new plan will restrict new construction to properties already owned by the authority. It will first build an interim bus terminal, a major undertaking that involves constructing much the same megastructure as proposed before, located in the area between 39th and 40th Streets, but starting past the private structures, about 200 feet west of Ninth Avenue. Decks over the tunnel approaches to the south would provide additional space for interim operations. The existing terminal and ramps would then be torn down and a new terminal constructed on the site, connecting to the interim facility across 40th Street. Once the new terminal is in operation, the interim terminal would become bus storage space, and the decks over the approaches would become parks.

The plan has several problems. One is cost; the authority’s leaders declined to offer an estimate, but it would be extraordinarily high. The proposal involves building over a working tunnel entrance and operational bus ramps. There are complicated engineering problems, and limited off-peak time slots available for construction. The interim terminal would need to be fitted out for passenger use, with vertical circulation and amenities such as waiting areas and restrooms, and then rebuilt as bus parking.

The second problem is community disruption. The phased construction of the interim facility and the new bus terminal would take eight years. The construction zone is densely developed, and the streets are heavily congested under normal circumstances. Partial street closures for construction staging would further exacerbate the situation. While the interim facility was in operation, bus passengers would need to use public sidewalks and streets to access the subway, setting up further conflicts with construction activities and tunnel traffic.

A third problem is what we would get in the end. The new plan calls for a sinuous megastructure, likely over 100 feet in height, that begins at Eighth Avenue, crosses Ninth Avenue, turns south over 39th Street, then west to cross Tenth Avenue, ending just east of Eleventh Avenue. It would cut the neighborhood in two, discouraging north-south pedestrian movement and looming over the north terminus of the midblock park between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, now named after Congresswoman Bella Abzug, that the city has partially completed.

Like its predecessors, this plan will probably fail to advance due to high costs and the impracticality of managing its construction and long-term impacts. New Jersey commuters, returning to their offices as the pandemic fades, will continue to slog through the dismal existing facility. If bus traffic exceeds capacity, the Port Authority will need to improvise solutions using curbside space on the West Side.

In reality, a bus operation at this scale makes little sense. No other city of comparable size has such a facility. The sensible solution is to scale back dramatically the need for commuter buses by building adequate rail-transit capacity serving the dense communities on the west side of the Hudson that presently dominate bus ridership, many of which have no rail option. New rail tunnels across the Hudson would also be expensive, but they have the advantage of being mostly underground in Manhattan—no need for three-block-long megastructures to disrupt communities.

The best solution of all would be to extend the New York City subway to New Jersey, as a Bloomberg administration study proposed in 2013. The Port Authority is reportedly studying this possibility, but the current bus terminal proposal makes no mention of this option. An interstate subway raises several legal and regulatory questions, but what better time to answer them than now, when the pro-transit Democrats control the presidency and Congress, and when a New York senator is majority leader?

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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