NJ: Port Authority Bus Terminal, Beset by Delays and Decrepitude, Set for $260M

Aug. 04--Richard Simon keeps a tally of every injustice inflicted upon him by the Port Authority Bus Terminal. At 5:02 p.m., Bus 77 left for Toms River. Simon recorded its departure on a small notepad using a scratchy blue pen.

Further insults occurred at 5:03, when buses departed for Freehold, Morristown and another for Toms River, leaving Simon behind on the platform waiting for his own bus, the 196, scheduled to depart at 5 p.m. for West Milford. After a lull, four buses left at 5:11, which Simon found especially galling.

"It just kills me," said Simon, 66, shaking with anger. "They're charging us top-dollar fares and giving us Third World service."

Simon isn't the only person who's angry. Conditions at the Port Authority Bus Terminal are worse than ever, said Mark Schaff, the man in charge of the facility. Long lines are growing longer. Critical pathways for buses and pedestrians are clogged, deteriorated and dangerous. The heating and cooling systems are inadequate, the bathrooms are horrors, and the ceiling leaks rain and melted snow onto commuters' heads.

After decades of deferred overhauls, however, a rare alignment of commuter outrage and shifting politics may force the building's owner, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, to make repairs. The agency plans to spend up to $260 million on maintenance in the coming years, a small down payment on what commuters, some elected officials and the agency's leaders agree is truly needed: An all-new terminal that could cost more than $1 billion.

A new building is years — possibly decades — away. Meanwhile, New Jersey commuters, who make up the largest contingent of riders that use the complex, must cope the best they can.

"It's in very bad physical shape, and it's totally unacceptable," said Scott Rechler, a Port Authority commissioner from New York. "We can put lipstick on a pig to make things a little more manageable. But it won't solve the larger problem, which is the need for a new bus terminal."

Rechler and the rest of the agency's board of commissioners, however, approved a 10-year capital plan in February without a bus terminal replacement project.

Congestion has grown markedly worse in recent years, said Schaff, the Port Authority's assistant general manager in charge of the terminal and the Lincoln Tunnel. It's so bad that bus drivers routinely try to hide their vehicles inside the terminal by circling its byzantine pathways to stay off city streets, where police are quick to write tickets. The impact on commuters' lives is direct, and at times, intensely personal. Monica Rose has missed most of her son's football games at Teaneck High School because of late buses, she said. She had a doctor's appointment at 6 p.m. Thursday, so she arrived at the bus terminal at 4:47 p.m.

Standing in line, it appeared she'd miss that appointment, too.

"It could be 30 minutes, it could be an hour," Rose said. "It makes it impossible to plan anything after work."

Every month Abby Chieffalo's mother-in-law visits her apartment in Edgewater to cook a big Italian dinner. Most months, Chieffalo is late. Chieffalo blames her tardiness on bus terminal delays, but her mother-in-law takes it as an insult.

"She thinks I'm purposefully late," Chieffalo said. "I try to explain, but she doesn't believe the bus terminal is this bad."

Some commuters are so angry, they seem nearly ready to burst.

"We are treated like cattle! This just can't continue. It's a form of torture," said Amy Losack, a Teaneck resident waiting for the 167 bus. "I sit for eight hours a day, and I want to go home and go for a walk outside. But I can't. This is a pit! This is a horror show!"

The simplest reason for growing congestion at the bus terminal is the fact that more people are using it every day. An average of 113,234 NJ Transit bus passengers used the terminal daily in 2003, according to NJ Transit. By 2013 that number had increased to 156,028 daily travelers, not including the people who take buses belonging to smaller, private companies or long-haul buses such as Greyhound.

Bus counts rose accordingly, from 938 NJ Transit coaches using the terminal every rush hour in 2002 to 1,048 in 2013.

Ridership increases were the result of historic demographic shifts, including rising population along New Jersey's Hudson riverfront and a large number of riders who shifted permanently from trains to buses after Superstorm Sandy in 2012, said Schaff and NJ Transit spokeswoman Nancy Snyder.

Meanwhile, the capacity of the terminal and Manhattan's West Side to handle buses actually shrank. Over the past decade, NJ Transit lost a number of bus parking lots on the West Side to residential developments; traffic in the area grew more congested; and the New York Police Department assigned traffic cops to the neighborhood to prevent buses from parking illegally, Snyder said.

"All of these factors are contributing to lines and congestion," she said.

The terminal, part of which dates to 1950, is already past its functional life, Schaff said. The system failures start at the entrance to the ramps leading to the terminal. With so many buses trying to get from the Lincoln Tunnel to the ramps, some are diverted onto city streets to prevent dangerous gridlock in the tunnel, Schaff said.

"I've been here 25 years and we've always diverted," Schaff said. "But now we're diverting earlier" in the day.

The second choke point occurs on the ramps, which divide halfway up, sending most buses to the third floor and some to the fourth. The problem: Buses bound for the lower floor block those trying to merge onto the top ramp.

 

"All the buses get in each others' way. If you get pushed into the wrong spot, you're finished," said NJ Transit bus driver Paul Venezia, who drives route 196.

A third choke point lies within the building proper, on the southeast corner of the third floor, where two lanes of buses must merge before they can reach the departure gates. Squeezed between the building's structural columns and its cage-like exterior, buses make the turn in slow single file.

"If this gets stuck, I'm done," said Schaff as he walked the site last week. "We absolutely have capacity issues. Any hiccup anywhere in the system creates a really big delay."

Making matters worse, bus drivers are improvising to hit their departure times, escape gridlock and evade $110 tickets for parking illegally or blocking traffic on city streets. One technique: Ten NJ Transit bus drivers interviewed for this story all said they drive laps through the terminal — at the height of the evening rush but hours before their scheduled departures — to reduce the time they spend on Manhattan streets.

"There's no place for us," said Armando Valdez, an NJ Transit bus driver. "It's terrible."

On Wednesday the driver of NJ Transit Bus 7375 said he avoids getting stuck in the Lincoln Tunnel and missing his 6:10 p.m. departure time by entering Manhattan at 3:55. With more than two hours to kill, he loops the terminal as often as he can.

"Every time I go through the terminal, I make it worse," said the driver, who declined to give his name. "But there's nowhere for me to go."

Commuters experience similar jam-ups inside the building. At 5:25 p.m. on a recent rainy Tuesday afternoon, lines of travelers stretched from the third floor of the terminal's south building down to the second floor and filled the entire north building. At the tightest point, between the bathrooms and a balcony overlooking the main floor, bodies were packed so tightly people couldn't move.

"You got to keep going, buddy. The back of the line is all the way back there," Tony Johnson, who was waiting for the 128 bus to North Bergen, said to a man trapped in the middle. Johnson couldn't raise his hand because of the crush of bodies, so he motioned with his chin.

The lines snake up single-file stairwells and escalators that could become hazardous in case of fire or other emergencies, said Glenn Corbett, a former assistant fire chief in Waldwick and now a professor of fire science at John Jay College.

With few backups, shutting one escalator or stairwell for repairs makes lines and safety issues even worse, said Schaff.

"It's a problem," he said.

Once they finally climb to the bus platforms, many passengers wait in long, narrow, glass-enclosed vestibules made even skinnier by the profusion of stairs and escalators rising to the third and fourth floors. Three bus routes may leave from a single gate, but buses often depart with empty seats because there's only room in the vestibules for a single line of people. People who cut ahead to reach a less-than-full bus do so at their own peril, as Steve Bijelic discovered on a recent Wednesday afternoon.

"Okay! Jeesh! I'm from Chicago. I didn't know," said Bijelic, 41, who became a target for angry words when he accidentally walked up the wrong stairwell and found himself at the front of a line.

In addition to the long lines, commuters complain of poor cellular service and little information about departure times. NJ Transit introduced an app for users to track bus schedules, but many people can't use it because the terminal's thick walls block cellular reception, Schaff said.

"There is no communication. We're a captive audience held hostage by a huge monopoly," said Eric Rosen, 59, from Teaneck.

Commuters also complain about dodging drips from the ceiling, and big yellow buckets used to catch the water. All that water isn't coming from leaking pipes — the water collecting in buckets is actually rain and snowmelt falling from buses and seeping through old concrete.

Structurally speaking, the bus lanes function as a single, three-story bridge sitting atop the terminal, said Schaff. Like any bridge in its seventh decade, the bus lanes are failing. They need to be replaced, down to the slab.

"It's sort of disgraceful," Schaff said, pointing at a yellow barrel. "How do you replace the slabs but still use the building? We're chock-a-block already."

For decades, the Port Authority delayed major renovations at the bus terminal as it negotiated with developers to sell the building's air rights and erect a large office tower, Schaff said. Each deal fell through, however, saddling the terminal with years of delayed maintenance. In August 2011, the Port Authority removed from its 10-year capital plan a project to spend $800 million on a new bus parking garage in Manhattan. Meanwhile, the agency sent more than $1 billion to New Jersey to replace the Pulaski Skyway and backed the bonds to support privately owned skyscrapers at the World Trade Center.

"Obviously, bus riders have been getting short shrift," said state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Teaneck.

But the political landscape shifted dramatically in recent months. David Samson, the Port Authority's powerful chairman and close ally of Governor Christie, resigned in March amid the probe into possible political motivations for the closure of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge and allegations that Samson and his law firm profited from Port Authority contracts.

And Rechler butted heads earlier this year over Port Authority finances with another New York commissioner, Kenneth Lipper. Rechler was pushing a plan to back private development at the World Trade Center site, while Lipper wanted the money directed toward the bus terminal.

Now, with a new chairman, John Degnan, a former New Jersey attorney general, the agency and its commissioners appear to be focused on rehabilitating the agency's reputation — and its bus terminal.

"The clear consensus is that a new bus terminal will be necessary," Degnan said after a tour of the facility in July. "It is obsolete in every way you can imagine."

It comes at a time when bus commuters' rage has reached a boiling point, and when Weinberg's star is especially high, given her persistence in pursuing the lane-closure scandal by showing up at Port Authority meetings and demanding answers. In June Weinberg co-hosted a town hall meeting for bus riders to vent their frustration.

"The timing is right," Weinberg said. "I think we're on the road to improvement."

The Port Authority announced it will spend $90 million this year to improve the terminal. The money will be used to improve air conditioning, waterproof patches of the ceiling, revamp bathrooms and improve cellular service, Schaff said. The money also will pay for an engineering study of Galvin Plaza, two blocks southwest of the terminal, where the Port Authority and NJ Transit hope to build a bus parking garage, Schaff said. In addition, the agency's capital plan includes $170 million for maintenance over 10 years.

And last summer, the Port Authority awarded a contract to two large engineering firms, KPG and Parsons Engineering, to study the region's bus system and suggest improvements, starting with a new terminal, Schaff said. The report is due in the spring.

While commissioners wait for the report, Richard Simon will continue waiting for his bus.

On that Thursday night, he had hoped to get home in time to eat dinner, slip into a bathing suit and swim in his backyard pool. As the minutes ticked by and 19 buses left without him, Simon looked out at the exhaust-filled platform and watched his plans fade away.

"Now I can't get into my pool tonight for exercise, which I need, because it'll be getting too cold and dark," Simon said. "I guess I'll just stand here and count buses. There's nothing else to do."

 

 

Copyright 2014 - The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)

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