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The P.A.'s largest plans are in doubt

12/11/01 BY AL FRANK STAR-LEDGER STAFF

Huge projects such as a twin to the Goethals Bridge and the expansion of Terminal A at Newark International Airport -- all part of a five-year $9.5 billion spending plan adopted just one year ago -- are likely to be delayed for years in the aftermath of Sept. 11. With security costs doubled and revenue sluggish, executives of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey have prepared a $4.7 billion budget that calls for postponing major construction in favor of beefing up defenses at the metropolitan area's airports, marine terminals and bridges and tunnels.

Even so, the bistate agency's board of commissioners, which meets Thursday, is expected to proceed with a $585 million plan to restore PATH service to Lower Manhattan, perhaps in as little as 18 months.

The budget plan they will consider also includes $2 billion for capital projects like port dredging and for marine terminal expansion already under way. However, projects likely to be deferred include terminals for cash-strapped United and JetBlue airlines at JFK and marine terminals in Jersey City and Brooklyn.

Another possibility is the deferral of the acquisition of a new PATH fleet, but agency officials believe the system's riders would feel betrayed if the agency reneged on a pledge to replace the nation's oldest mass transit fleet after imposing fare increases earlier this year. The existing fleet is being strained to capacity after daily ridership soared following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. The station in the basement of the complex was the busiest on the commuter line and was knocked out of service after hijackers crashed airliners into the Twin Towers.

Debris covers part of the basement station, which was used by 60,000 commuters daily. Officials are now confident its structural integrity is uncompromised and it can be reopened once it is cleared and repairs to signals and tracks are completed.

In the aftermath of the attacks, authorities curtailed traffic or closed tunnels and bridges while airlines cut back flights. But the financial impact was not huge. After anticipated payments from the federal government and insurance carriers, the agency expects its direct liability from the disaster will be about $20 million, according to documents obtained by The Star-Ledger.

The problem for the Port Authority isn't income. Rather, the agency's needs have ballooned, and they will be expensive. This year's operating revenues are expected to be $2.9 billion, or about what the agency projected, including the boost in fares and tolls that took effect last March. The Port Authority's two tunnels and four bridges are still expected to see 126 million vehicles this year, generating $713 million in tolls. And while parking and shopping revenues may be down at the airports, aviation is still expected to yield $1.5 billion because most income is derived from long-term leases and by dividing expenses among airlines no matter how traffic fluctuates.

"We're not close to losing money but we are in a situation where the large surpluses we had previously forecast have vanished," said Ronald Shiftan, acting executive director. "The impact will mostly be on the ability to fund the capital plan."

In large part, that is because the agency is now planning to divert millions more to annual security costs estimated at $490 million, about double what they were a year ago. Insurance is also up by $50 million per year, Shiftan said. Some of the additional expense is to go toward paying National Guard soldiers already patrolling bridges, tunnels and marine terminals as well as Newark, Kennedy and LaGuardia airports. The tab for those on duty in airport terminals is being picked up by the federal government, an arrangement that is supposed to expire after passenger checkpoints are staffed by federal employees.

But State Police and Department of Corrections officers, as well as the National Guard soldiers on Port Authority patrol, will have to be paid upwards of $130,000 per year for some time. Ultimately, the agency expects its own police force will require 700 new officers. The roster of Port Authority police, which lost 37 in the attacks, now stands at about 1,000, but many retirements are anticipated. In considering the budget, the board will meet Thursday in quarters borrowed from Con Edison.

It will be almost a year from the day the 12 commissioners convened in the elegant paneled conference room on the 67th floor of the World Trade Center's North Tower to adopt the long-awaited capital plan. To help pay for it they authorized the first increase in PATH fares since 1987 and the first boost in bridge and tunnel tolls since 1991. Another round of toll and fare hikes could be imposed to cover the additional costs, or to stick with the capital plan's current timetable.

But Shiftan said that was hardly likely and, with the Goethals twin never a popular project and the need for Terminal A's expansion less immediate now that air traffic is down, it made little sense now to push either forward. The Newark airport project called for a doubling of Terminal A's capacity plus the construction of the airport's third parking garage.

"Anything we have started will be finished," he said. "Only things we haven't started will be deferred and reassessed."

In addition to providing for reopening the World Trade Center station itself, the PATH item calls for a track crossover to be installed so the Exchange Place station in Jersey City can be reopened. The crossover will permit service to resume because trains won't stall other service by having to back out of the tubes that run beneath the Hudson River to the Trade Center.

The tubes were flooded by runoff from burst pipes and water sprayed by firefighters after the attacks. As the tunnels, signals and tracks are repaired, the platforms at Exchange Place will be lengthened to serve 10-car trains.

Another aspect of the PATH plan calls for spending up to $10 million on a feasibility study for turning the original downtown station at Church Street into a massive hub linking PATH and nine New York City subway lines. Located a half-block east of the Trade Center, the 60-year-old station was vacated in 1971 and turned into a loading dock and underground vault.

While converting the site into a hub might cost almost $2 billion, proponents say it would provide a major boon to Lower Manhattan's recovery by easing transfers between transit systems, just as the Port Authority Bus Terminal or Penn and Grand Central stations do uptown.

Al Frank covers the Port Authority. He can be reached at afrank@starledger.com or 973-392-5808.

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