New Yorkers have watched One World Trade Center gradually define the downtown skyline. The massive glass-and-steel building should reach its full height and be ready for tenants within 18 months. But to those tenants, One World Trade may come to symbolize not victory over terror but rather their own miserable commutes. Most of the white-collar workers who will stream into the tower depend on subways, buses, tunnels, and bridges to get to Manhattan. And over the past decade, the government agency in charge of much of the regions transportation—the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey—has neglected that core responsibility in favor of rebuilding lower Manhattan.
The good news is that the World Trade Center project (technically, the first big phase of a larger, two-phase plan) is closer to completion than to commencement. Over the past three years, not only has the $3.9 billion One World Trade Center (known in the planning stages as the Freedom Tower) risen ever higher; other projects have taken shape downtown as well, including a $3.7 billion train hub, a vehicle security center to receive the trucks that will serve the new office towers, and a remade streetscape. Even a long-running dispute over who will run the 9/11 memorial and museum at the site has been solved.
Unfortunately, the Port Authority has barely begun to pay for all this rebuilding. Its share of the bill comes to $7.7 billion, which it has borrowed. And to repay that massive debt, the agency will have to divert toll revenue from bridges and tunnels and fee revenue from airports—money that wont be available for the transportation projects that New York badly needs.
In the early twentieth century, editorialists, public officials, and good-government advocates fretted that New Yorks port, facing competition from as far away as New Orleans, wasnt reaching its potential. The chief culprit: bickering between New York and New Jersey. New York had the piers to receive ships, and New Jersey had the railways to move the ships cargo, but the two sides could never agree about how to invest in port assets. In early 1920, New York governor Al Smith urged lawmakers to do something. Port development is critical, he said. It affects the cost of living; it affects the cost of doing business. The New York Times agreed, arguing that the port is a national interest, and it is economically wicked to divide it between New York and New Jersey.
The next year, the governors of New York and New Jersey signed an agreement to create the Port of New York Authority (New Jersey was added and the words reordered in 1972). Realizing that they would have to work together in other ways—above all, the growing region needed transportation infrastructure, such as bridges and tunnels—the two states endowed the agency with a broad mission: to purchase, construct, lease, and/or operate any terminal or transportation facility within a defined district along the New YorkNew Jersey border. To finalize the deal, the governors had to secure congressional approval and beat back a lawsuit by New York mayor John Red Mike Hylan, who didnt want some bistate agency controlling his land.
The Port Authority clocked some impressive achievements in its early decades, living up to its founders Progressive vision of an agency staffed with apolitical technocrats expertly building necessary transportation assets. Starting in the twenties, the Port Authority constructed the George Washington Bridge, linking New Jersey and Manhattan, as well as three smaller bridges—the Goethals, the Bayonne, and the Outerbridge Crossing—connecting Jersey to Staten Island. It also dug the Lincoln Tunnel under the Hudson and took over the operation of the existing Holland Tunnel. Beginning in the late 1940s, the Port Authority took over and expanded the regions three airports: LaGuardia, Newark, and Idlewild (renamed John F. Kennedy a month after the presidents 1963 assassination). As more New York City workers moved to the suburbs, the authority opened a Manhattan bus terminal in 1950.
But the Port Authority began to experience mission creep in the late sixties. Early in that decade, David Rockefeller, vice chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank and brother of Governor Nelson Rockefeller, had built Chase Manhattan Plaza in lower Manhattan. Wanting other companies to join him there, he hounded his brother to spearhead office development downtown. In 1960, David Rockefellers DowntownLower Manhattan Association unveiled a $250 million plan to construct a world center of trade on the East River. The Port Authority seemed the logical agency to build the complex, the Times said, describing his reasoning, because the World Trade Center would strengthen the economic fabric of the entire New York-northern Jersey area.
Half a decade later, the plan was becoming reality, but it had changed significantly. The project had moved from the east side of downtown to the west, and its price had risen to $575 million ($4.1 billion in todays dollars). It would also require government tenants, with New York State occupying up to one-fifth of it. To mollify New Jersey for making such a big investment in New York, the Port Authority would also take on responsibility for the loss-making subway system already running between the two states (today called PATH). And it became obvious why promoters wanted the Port Authority to build the World Trade Center: the agency could borrow more cheaply than corporations could, as it enjoyed tax exemptions and took in ample revenue each year from its busy bridges and tunnels.
Not just Rockefeller but other state and city wise men embraced the World Trade Center. The sixties, remember, were an era of mass-scale slum clearance and other top-down government construction schemes. That the project would demolish one of the citys oldest and most colorful commercial centers, as the Times put it in 1964— a neighborhood abounding with flower shops and nurseries, hardware stores, book stalls, food and fish markets and restaurants—didnt deter officials. Local merchants took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court after losing the legal battle in New York; the court refused them even a hearing.
In the end, the Port Authority exhausted its financial and political resources in building the Twin Towers, completed in the early seventies. As World Trade Center historian Angus Kress Gillespie wrote in his 1999 book Twin Towers, The World Trade Center was the last great project that the agency would undertake, at least in our time. In building the complex, Gillespie concluded, the authority had stretch[ed] the limits of its charter, angering regular citizens and small businesspeople. The private real-estate industry, too, was upset that it now faced a huge government competitor with a tax advantage and easy borrowing terms. A group of real-estate operators worried, for example, that the Port Authority would have difficulty finding tenants for its skyscrapers and would dump the space on the open market at reduced rents.
Even as New Yorkers came to love the towers on their skyline, officials began realizing that the World Trade Center fit uneasily within the Port Authoritys mission. In 1983, two years after former deputy mayor John Zuccotti advised them to sell the Twin Towers and use the proceeds to improve mass transit, Governors Mario Cuomo of New York and Tom Kean of New Jersey agreed to study the question. A year later, though, the Port Authoritys consultant determined that the Port Authority and the two States can derive the greatest value from the World Trade Center if it is retained by the Port Authority, as the agency announced in its annual report to investors.
Unfortunately for the regions transportation infrastructure, the consultant was right, at least about short-term cash value. By 1983, the World Trade Center was enjoying higher occupancy rates and had consequently stopped losing tens of millions of dollars every year; in fact, it had started to turn a small annual profit, about $11 million ($25.4 million in todays dollars). Further, with an improving economy, the state could vacate some of the office space that it occupied in the towers and allow the Port Authority to take on higher-paying tenants.
So the governors agreed with the consultant. Instead of seizing the opportunity to return the Port Authority to its original mission, they used the cash to expand its activities dramatically. Worse still was that they had already found a use for any extra money that the World Trade Center generated: not to fund transportation but to assist in the commercial revitalization of the region, as Cuomo and Kean agreed formally in 1983. That phrase was code for spending on regional programs that had nothing to do with transportation between New York and New Jersey. The following year, the two states also passed legislation directing the Port Authority to develop two waterfront real-estate projects, one in Hoboken and one in Queens.
Over the ensuing three decades, the agency spent $2.1 billion on everything from development of a Yonkers industrial park to planning studies for Brooklyns MetroTech office park to building a rail spur to the Meadowlands sports complex in New Jersey, with some money left over for community development in Newark and Elizabeth (in Jersey) and Jamaica (in Queens). As the authority proudly noted in annual reports in the early eighties, it was constructing a solid-waste disposal project in Essex County, New Jersey; had opened Teleport, which was, in the words of Executive Director Peter Goldmark, Jr., the worlds first satellite communications center and office park, on Staten Island; and was building something called Fishport, which would resurrect the fishing industry in the bi-state harbor. Encouraged by the governors but not needing much encouragement, the agency had strayed far indeed from bridges and tunnels.
But in the nineties, pushed by Governor George Pataki, the Port Authority revived the decade-old plan to sell the World Trade Center. The buyer was real-estate mogul Larry Silverstein—though the arrangement was technically a 99-year lease, not an outright sale, so that Silverstein could indirectly benefit from the Port Authoritys tax breaks and other advantages. Despite the complexity of the deal, proponents of a smaller Port Authority were satisfied. By sharpening the agencys focus on our airports, seaports, bridges and tunnels, said Pataki, the handover would let the Port Authority improve services . . . and become a stronger economic engine.
The sale took place on July 24, 2001. The world knows what happened seven weeks later.
For the first half-decade after 9/11, emotions and empire-building reigned over Ground Zero. Though pure rationality was never going to rule the rebuilding process, Pataki made some critical mistakes. One was to create a new public authority, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC), to oversee the rebuilding. The LMDC held design contests for Ground Zero, but it wasnt accountable for the long-term success of the resulting plans; turning those plans into reality was the responsibility of the Port Authority and Silverstein, still landlord and tenant, respectively. This arrangement gave the LMDC little incentive to come up with a workable design.
Governor Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg had considerable discretion over the money that Congress had provided to help New York rebuild. Unfortunately, they used it to approve financing for projects that had nothing to do with Ground Zero, ranging from a now-bankrupt sports museum downtown to the Bank of America Tower in midtown. Few officials, including those in the Port Authority, sounded alarms as the politicians frittered away the rebuilding funds.
Still another mistake was the ambitious master plan that Pataki and his advisors pushed: Memory Foundations, by celebrity architect Daniel Libeskind, which included a 1,776-foot Freedom Tower, a memorial, three smaller towers, and a new PATH station designed by a second starchitect, Santiago Calatrava. The station wouldnt add new train lines but would feature two counterpoised canopies over the main concourse, rising some 150 feet like skeletal birds wings, that could be retracted hydraulically in pleasant weather, in the Timess description. The projects werent just fanciful; they were expensive. But money was no object in showing the world that New York would rebuild.
At any rate, the costs were covered, werent they? Silversteins insurance funds—$3.5 billion or so—would take care of the Freedom Towers $1.1 to $1.3 billion price tag ($1.2 to $1.6 billion in todays dollars), with plenty left over to build the other towers at the site. And federal aid and more insurance funds would pay for the $2 billion PATH station. When Pataki laid the Freedom Towers cornerstone on July 4, 2004, just in time for the Republican National Conventions arrival in town, nobody was wondering what would happen if the money ran out.
It took until 2006 for Pataki, the Port Authority, and other state and local officials to admit that the entire Ground Zero plan was impracticable. The Freedom Tower, more an art project than a realistic design, worked as a slide show but not as a building. It would need a complete redesign by Norman Foster, an architect accustomed to working on real office buildings for private clients whose eyes were on the bottom line. The price tag of the PATH station was outpacing construction, too. Little was happening downtown, except for the rise of one tower, Seven World Trade Center, which Silverstein could rebuild quickly because it was outside the official government-controlled site. Pataki could see the end of his term coming; it became obvious that dwindling insurance proceeds wouldnt cover the rising costs of rebuilding—and the governor panicked.
The solution that he approved will burden the Port Authority for decades to come. The agency would take over from Silverstein the job of building One World Trade Center and another tower adjacent to the site. Silverstein, who would retain responsibility for building the other three towers at Ground Zero, would see his rent cut significantly and would also receive substantial financial help for proceeding. For example, Four World Trade Center, which is currently being built, is going up under Silversteins management but with $1.2 billion in Port Authoritysupported debt, as well as commitments from the authority and from New York City to lease two-thirds of the buildings space. All these commitments from the government were necessary because the projects made zero economic sense. Their rationale was, rather, political and emotional—as became clear once again in 2008, when Patakis successor, Eliot Spitzer, directed the authority to work even faster, and so incur still more costs, so that the memorial could open by the tenth anniversary of 9/11.
The fiscal toll of this arrangement is becoming clear. One World Trade Centers price tag has ballooned to $3.9 billion and the PATH stations to $3.7 billion. Even after insurance and other reimbursements, these costs, along with the cost of other projects at the site, mean that the Port Authority—which had no World Trade Center costs at all a decade ago—is now on the hook for a total of $7.7 billion. The agency has had no choice but to borrow. In 2002, it was $9.5 billion in debt; it now owes $19 billion. Debt has far outpaced revenue, which has risen only 41 percent over the same period, to $3.8 billion a year.
It will be at least another decade before anyone knows whether One World Trade Center, Four World Trade Center, and the three as-yet-unbuilt towers will repay their investments. The indications in the authoritys bond deals to finance the first two buildings arent promising. For Four World Trade Center, the Port Authority opted not to repay any principal on the 40-year bonds until 2026. For part of its One World Trade Center debt, a $672.5 million bond issued last year, the authority deferred principal repayment until 2039.
Its easy to see why the Port Authority wants to put off paying back the principal. It will face not only debt payments but colossal operating costs as well, including security costs. At the unfinished site, these expenditures totaled $106.3 million last year; in 2000, the last full year of the old complexs operations, they were $203.9 million, or $272.8 million in todays dollars. (They may be even higher at the new complex; after all, the Port Authoritys overall security bill has tripled in a decade, to nearly $500 million annually, as its public-safety headcount has risen nearly 15 percent.) If the Port Authority hadnt deferred its principal payments on debt, it would have to spend roughly $500 million a year on debt and operating costs. And to cover those bills, the agency would have to lease all the available office space in the two towers now under construction at $80 per square foot or more. These days, prime office space downtown rents for $42.81 a square foot, according to Cassidy Turley, a commercial real-estate consultant.
Even under its current arrangements, the Port Authority has taken a risky step. By the middle of the next decade, to pay just its debt costs of $90.2 million annually, Four World Trade Center will have to lease its entire 1.8 million square feet of office space at more than $50 a square foot. Bondholders wouldnt have taken on this risk normally; the only reason they provided money for the tower was the lease commitments from government agencies. Though One World Trade Centers finances are murkier, the same calculus roughly holds; in fact, rental prices will probably have to reach the mid-$60s per square foot.
The question is not whether the Port Authority can attract tenants—any landlord can, at the right price—but whether it can attract enough super-prime tenants to pay the bills. And answering that question means predicting the future of Manhattan real estate, a risky endeavor. Prices may rise over the next decade, or they may not. One World Trade Center and Four World Trade Center represent 5 million square feet of new space dumped onto a market still struggling after the credit bust. Nearby towers at the World Financial Center are themselves losing major tenants to midtown. Brand-new midtown towers, too, are jockeying with older Class-A space for new tenants. Yes, the old World Trade Center started generating profits after about a decade, but that was at a time when Wall Street was growing as a share of the citys economy and hungry for expensive office space; later, the tech bubble generated similar demand. These days, Wall Street is contracting. And yes, its a good start that the Condé Nast media empire has leased about one-third of One World Trade Center at $60 per square foot. But the Port Authority lured the company with sweeteners, including taking over its previous midtown lease for five years, which make it difficult to determine the real price.
If the Port Authority cant earn enough rent to pay its debt and operating costs, it will have to subsidize the World Trade Center by tens of millions of dollars a year or more. A private-sector firm might take that kind of risk in return for the chance of a big payoff, but its inappropriate for a public entity.
Like so many other public entities, the Port Authority also has rising employee costs to battle. As the Navigant consulting firm noted in early 2012, the agency spends $143,000 for each of its 6,913 workers in salary and benefits. In 2010, each worker consumed $37,645 in payments for health and pension benefits, up from $27,737 in 2006. Over the past half-decade, benefits grew more than twice as fast as salaries. The Port Authority owes $1.7 billion for the future health costs of its retirees. Though the agency has taken steps to rein in the costs of management and other nonunion employees, the fact that public-safety and other unionized workers dominate the staff makes substantial cuts difficult. Even as the authority has pared down the number of civilian workers, the number of its police officers, who are highly paid, has risen 27.1 percent, to 1,752. In 2010, Navigant notes, every person on the Port Authoritys Top Ten list of overtime earners was a police officer or commander, with nine of the ten more than doubling their six-figure base salaries.
Also burdening the Port Authoritys budget are construction expenditures, which are higher than they need to be. State and federal laws dictate that on projects funded in part with state and federal support, the agency must pay prevailing wages, which run well above market rates for some construction jobs. Last year, federal prosecutors indicted one subcontractor, the Fusella Group, for failing to pay prevailing wages at the PATH station construction site. Last year, in a study for Columbia University, the Regional Plan Associations Julia Vitullo-Martin examined infrastructure projects headed by other public agencies (not the Port Authority) in New York and estimated that prevailing-wage mandates could add 13 percent to 19 percent to their price tags. The Port Authority also sets aside work for minority and other disadvantaged contractors in its large projects, artificially pushing costs higher still.
The price of the last decades rebuilding mistakes will be borne by the people who use New York and New Jersey transportation. The Port Authority lacks the power to tax, so its budgets rely on profits from bridge and tunnel tolls (about $260 million last year) and from airport fees ($447 million). These profits subsidize the PATH system (which lost $396 million), the bus terminal ($113 million), ferries ($8 million), and port operations ($124 million). The profits also pay for investments in transportation—fixing old assets as well as building new ones.
The World Trade Center costs are already testing this equilibrium. A year ago this fall, the Port Authority hiked tolls for the second time in three years, with the price of a peak-time E-ZPass ride across the Hudson rising 19 percent, from $8 to $9.50. Tolls are set to rise by an additional 75 cents annually for three more years. The agency cant take that route forever; steeper tolls, plus higher gas prices and general economic malaise, are driving customers away. In 2011, bridge and tunnel traffic fell for the fifth year in a row, as more and more people decided to take the train or a bus instead of driving themselves. Over the last five years, annual PATH ridership has increased by 9.6 million passengers, while 3.8 million more people are taking the bus across the Hudson each year. That is, commuters are leaving the ranks of the subsidizers and joining the ranks of the subsidized.
But the Port Authority needs more subsidizers to pay for the transportation investments that it must make. Of the $25.1 billion that the agency has spent on capital investment since 2002, about $9.4 billion, or 38 percent, has gone toward World Trade Center redevelopment. The Port Authority does deserve credit for finishing a PATH train signal project, replacing some old train cars, and doing a bit of rehabilitation work at the airports during that time. But these investments have merely maintained the overburdened existing system, not created much-needed new capacity for it.
Over the next decade, commuters and air travelers will be lucky if the Port Authority can care for the assets that it does have. It slashed its ten-year capital budget by $8 billion to reduce last years toll hike after Governors Andrew Cuomo of New York and Chris Christie of New Jersey criticized the hike and accused the authority of wastefulness, as if its money woes werent the fault of elected officials. The Port Authority does still plan to spend $1 billion to replace cables on the George Washington Bridge, $1.5 billion to rehabilitate the entrances to the Lincoln Tunnel, $1 billion to raise the Bayonne Bridge so that ports can accept larger ships, and at least $1 billion to build a new Goethals Bridge, which has needed replacing since at least the mid-nineties. But again, these projects dont make life better for residents; they just keep things from falling apart. And the Port Authority is looking to cut capital spending even more. If the agency does have to pay a hefty annual operating subsidy for the World Trade Center, its hard to see how it will be able to invest in new infrastructure for the region.
Get off an international flight at Terminal Five in Londons Heathrow Airport, retrieve your luggage, and glide your way to the Heathrow Express, 14 years old but unquestionably twenty-first-century public transit. If you didnt conveniently print your tickets at home, you can stop at the kiosks. Or you can buy a one-way ticket—it costs about $25, one-third of the price of a taxi—from a helpful attendant. Then make your way to high-capacity elevators, entering through the front door and exiting through the back so that you dont have to turn your wheeled suitcase around. Walk straight to the train, confronting no confusing decision over which one to take. Once on board, stow your luggage, relax in a comfortable seat, catch up with the London news via a Sky TV feed, and read, e-mail, or check voice mail, even in tunnels. Almost without fail, youll be at Paddington Station, in the middle of London, in 21 minutes—a half to a third of the time that a taxi would take in London traffic.
By contrast, get off a flight at New Yorks John F. Kennedy International Airport, retrieve your luggage, and struggle your way to what passes for twenty-first-century public transit here: the Port Authoritys decade-old AirTrain. Youll get to the platform after a 15-minute haul. Then decipher the signs, if you can: youll have to do the trip a few times to figure out which train and stop are yours—and thats if youre a native English speaker and familiar with New Yorks transit system. Hop on the AirTrain, make the circuit of the airports terminals, and get off at Jamaica Station in Queens.
The trip deteriorates further here. Unless its a slow day for the NYPD and the force has deployed a small army of officers to protect you from vagrants and opportunists, youll have to fend off the people demanding to know where youre going—and offering to help you buy your ticket there—as you wait in line for a MetroCard. At the machines, purchase a ticket for a 45-minute subway ride on the E train or a slightly shorter commuter-rail trip; then make another walk to the platform. Youll navigate a route not designed for people with suitcases—maneuvering over bumps, slogging up and down broken escalators, and cramming yourself into elevators too small for a crush of visitors every quarter-hour. Then wait for 15 to 20 minutes to catch your train. In the end, even when all goes perfectly, youll have spent more than an hour getting from baggage collection to midtown Manhattan—easily three times what it takes to travel an identical distance in London, and no faster than taking a taxi.
New York, surely a global city, nevertheless lacks what other global cities have: a nonstop business-class ride from its major international airport to its major business district. The most dismaying part of this shortcoming is that New Yorks current system is an achievement. The AirTrain, conceived in the 1990s, was a sign that the Port Authority was finally—though all too briefly—re-embracing its real job of building and operating transit after years of pursuing unrelated projects. The agencys biggest transportation-related feat in a decade, the AirTrain opened in 2003 to great fanfare. If New York wants to keep competing with cities around the world for both tourist and business travelers, regional politicians should build on this modest achievement, not point to it as a radical success.
The missed opportunities are a shame. For starters, Manhattan needs a new bus terminal and garage. At the moment, backups at the Port Authoritys overcapacity West Side bus terminal force bus drivers to idle their empty vehicles on the street or drive them aimlessly around Manhattan or even back to New Jersey. As buses wait for spots at the terminal, the result is massive delays for our passengers, says Albert MacPherson, operations manager at Rockland Coaches, which runs commuter buses between the two states. Theres nothing we can do. People who dont commute via bus suffer, too. At community meetings in midtown, one of residents top three complaints (along with construction noise and quality-of-life violations) is idling buses, especially around the holidays. The complaints are likely to persist: the loss of a private investor recently led the Port Authority to cancel an $800 million project to build at least an extra garage.
As for the airports: LaGuardia is desperate for the state of the art terminals that the Port Authority has long promised, so that waiting travelers actually have a place to sit. The current terminal was built for smaller planes with far fewer passengers. At JFK, JetBlue spent a lot to build a new terminal, only to continue to lose lucrative short-haul business to Amtrak, in large part because of the prohibitive ground commute to midtown (see sidebar). Theres no reason why the Port Authority couldnt take on the job of building a new travel lane on the Van Wyck Expressway out to JFK, and then charge private bus companies a premium fare for a real express ride.
Further, New Jersey Transit and Amtrak travelers face unpredictable slowdowns because the tunnels under the Hudson River are so congested. Two years after Christie canceled plans for it, New York and New Jersey still badly need another rail tube underneath the Hudson. The Port Authority, which was going to build the $8.7 billion tunnel, would be a natural candidate to restart the project. But even if it started tomorrow, hundreds of thousands of commuters would suffer unpredictable rides for another decade.
The Port Authority cant retrieve the $7.7 billion borrowed and spent downtown. Nor can it privatize One World Trade Center and its other downtown real estate without realizing an immediate ten-figure cash loss—a loss that New York and New Jersey would have to cover.
Finding private investment elsewhere wont solve the Port Authoritys problems, either. The agency has already put out bids for a private group to finance, build, and maintain the replacement Goethals Bridge, and it may try the same approach for a new LaGuardia terminal, but private financing doesnt replace public resources. Under its Goethals Bridge plan, the Port Authority would have to pledge an annual payment to the private operator to operate the structure—funds that would come out of tolls. Any private operator would work under the same prevailing-wage and other public-sector constraints that inflate costs today. At LaGuardia, similarly, funding for a new terminal would come from airline landing fees and other airport revenues, whether the Port Authority or a private operator did the construction. In fact, if the agency relies on a private operator, it could end up paying more than it otherwise would, since private operators pay more than public entities do to raise financing and must also carve out a profit for their investors. Privatization at other global airports, including Londons Heathrow, has been no panacea, with landing fees rising markedly to pay for private investment.
But the governors of the two states can take some steps to improve transportation prospects for their constituents. First, they should appoint to the authoritys board people who have real expertise in managing costs on big projects and who arent afraid to speak up, especially when the politicians wont like what they hear. Recent appointments havent been reassuring: Christie has appointed his former chief of staff, now a pharmaceutical-industry lobbyist, while Cuomo has named the publisher of the Spanish-language newspapers La Prensa and El Diario. The governors should also work aggressively to reduce the Port Authoritys labor bill, particularly its unsustainable policing costs.
Both governors should disavow the eighties-style regional programs that are unrelated to the Port Authoritys mission and that, unlike bridges and tunnels, produce no revenue. Last year, such programs consumed $153 million in agency money, including $60 million just on debt payment for past projects. That $60 million would have been more than enough to let the agency borrow the $1 billion or so that it should take to build a new bus terminal. If Cuomo and Christie want to dump public money into projects that will never pay for themselves, whether fisheries or fowleries, they should ask taxpayers directly, not hide the bill within the tolls, fares, and fees that commuters and air travelers pay. Unfortunately, the governors are going in the wrong direction. In late September, the Port Authority proudly announced that it was considering taking over airport operations in Atlantic City—miles from both the agencys Hudson River region and its core mission.
The governors should also disavow the Port Authoritys hobby of commercial real-estate development. Private companies, not public authorities, should build houses and office buildings. The Port Authority should sell off these projects, even at a loss, since they eat up not only financial resources but time and attention.
New York City should take a greater interest in the quality-of-life burden that an outdated bus terminal puts on its residents and visitors. The city has benefited greatly from the fact that more tourists as well as workers come to Manhattan every year by bus. The city should help pay for a new terminal, just as it recently paid the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority to extend the subway west from Times Square. And the city shouldnt wait for a private developer to shoulder the cost of a better terminal as part of a bid to build a midtown office tower, as the agency currently wants to do; by the time the real-estate market is hot enough for that to happen, its inevitably about to cool again, forcing the private developer to back out.
The most important thing that officials can do, though, is be honest about the problem. When New Yorkers wonder why buses are clogging midtown, why theres no world-class transit from the airport to Manhattan, and why trains to New Jersey and beyond still experience avoidable delays, the people they elect to office shouldnt respond by blaming the Port Authority, as though its actions were incomprehensible and beyond their control. Instead, they should look in the mirror.
Research for this article was supported by the Brunie Fund for New York Journalism.