The Sunday before last, as I emerged tired and dispirited from Penn Station after a two-plus hour trip from the Newark airport, I found myself pondering President Trump’s campaign pledge “to spur $1 trillion in infrastructure investment,” a theme he raised in this year’s State of the Union address and is expected to address again next week.
A year ago, I embraced the newly-elected president’s initiative, calling on him “to build something awe-inspiring.”
Given the deficit-exploding impact of the new tax code, it’s difficult to see where the money will come from. In any event, after this trip, I’ll settle for something far more modest: basic improvements to public transportation.
Regional transportation infrastructure is largely the responsibility of state and local governments, and it’s especially complicated in places like the New York metropolitan area, which includes multiple jurisdictions and agencies. But just as the federal government spurred the creation of the Interstate highway system under President Dwight Eisenhower, it could revitalize the nation’s transportation infrastructure — without blowing up the deficit — with a combination of better regulation, creative incentives, loans and grants. Many transportation projects are sound investments that can pay for themselves.
My trip to Manhattan from Newark Liberty International Airport began at Terminal A. Newark is a finalist in Amazon’s quest for a second headquarters location, but one look at that terminal should be enough to send the e-commerce giant’s representatives back to Seattle. The aging terminal was packed and badly lit, with peeling, mismatched carpeting. There was a line out of the men’s room because so much plumbing was out of order. There was no dedicated TSA Pre line and the food options were minimal.
Many consumer reviews of Newark generally, and Terminal A in particular, are scathing. “Let me just say that Terminal A is hell on earth,” wrote one traveler on the airport review site Skytrax.
No one, including the airport’s owner and operator, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, defends the terminal. “The Port Authority recognizes that Newark’s Terminal A, which opened in 1973, can no longer adequately serve today’s passengers,” a spokeswoman acknowledged.
Terminal A is scheduled to be demolished, which is why it’s gotten little or no investment. Ground was broken for a new terminal last summer, and in December the Port Authority approved $496 million for early-stage development. It’s expected to ask for more funding as soon as next week, and the project is estimated to cost $2.3 billion. But even if all goes according to plan, the new terminal isn’t expected to be fully operational until 2022.
The Port Authority has been mired in scandal since at least 2013, when the Fort Lee lane-closing scheme exposed political machinations by appointees of New Jersey’s then-governor, Chris Christie. Rick Cotton, a veteran civil servant and infrastructure expert whom New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo named as the authority’s executive director last year, has pledged reforms.
Newark’s Terminal B, which received a $350 million update in 2014, and Terminal C, which was built by United Airlines and is operated under a long-term lease by the company, are far better, though both attract plenty of complaints from travelers.
A major issue for the New York area’s airports is that the Port Authority is allowed to divert revenues collected from airline passengers to nonairport uses, such as the PATH train and the new Oculus station at the World Trade Center, a project that went grossly over budget. Federal law bans such redirections elsewhere, but the Port Authority was one of several airport operators that were exempted.
“If Newark airport kept all the money it generated from landing fees it could be a world-class airport,” said Tom Wright, president of the Regional Plan Association, an independent urban research group that focuses on infrastructure and public policy in the New York area. But doing so would starve other Port Authority needs, such as mass transit, he added.
Improving Newark and the rest of America’s airports needn’t add to the federal deficit. Airports can fund capital improvements by levying fees on passengers and airlines. Airlines typically oppose that, and federal law currently caps such fees, known as passenger facility charges. Efforts to raise the cap, which hasn’t been increased in 15 years, have gone nowhere in Congress.
“It makes no sense that the fees would be the same for Des Moines and Newark, given their vastly different mass transit needs,” said Mr. Wright.
After a 10-minute walk in Terminal A, I boarded the AirTrain for what is supposed to be an 11-minute trip to the Newark Airport train station. That seemed ample time to make the next New Jersey Transit train to Manhattan, due in 20 minutes.
Nothing about the AirTrain inspires confidence. It moved along the monorail at what felt like a snail’s pace, shuddering at every curve. Twice it inexplicably stopped for extended periods. During the second of these stops, within sight of our destination, I watched in frustration as my train to Manhattan came and went.
Complaints about the AirTrain have been mounting for years, and the Port Authority has conceded it’s “unreliable.” It has been periodically shut down for repairs, and passengers have had to be evacuated after being stuck on board.
Though the AirTrain is less than 25 years old, and cost $769 million ($1.3 billion adjusted for inflation) to build, the Port Authority concluded it must be demolished and replaced. The current capital plan calls for $385 million in repairs to the existing AirTrain, and $40 million for planning its replacement, but doesn’t include the cost of the new train system. The planning proposal anticipates “substantial completion” in 2022, though that seems overly ambitious.
Once I reached the station, I learned that the next New Jersey Transit train wouldn’t arrive for 50 minutes. When I went to the enclosed (and presumably heated) waiting area, it was empty, and entry was barred by a guard at the door.
A Port Authority official said the area was closed because of an unattended bag. Some time after I left, it reopened when a police dog certified in bomb detection determined the bag was harmless.
A New Jersey Transit spokeswoman, Nancy Snyder, explained that weekend service from Newark Airport is “limited” because of Amtrak maintenance work. Only three trains run per hour, clustered within the first 20 minutes of the hour, she said, and I evidently missed the last of those.
The number of New Jersey Transit trains is also constrained by tunnel capacity under the Hudson River. Although a new rail tunnel has been one of the country’s top infrastructure priorities for years, in January the Trump administration cast doubt on the federal government’s commitment to fund half the cost of the first phase of the project, estimated at $11 billion. (New York and New Jersey have pledged to pay the rest.)
In 2010, of course, Mr. Christie famously canceled a project for a new Hudson River tunnel, citing cost overruns, a decision whose reverberations continue to be felt by New Jersey’s beleaguered commuters.
The train, when it finally arrived, was packed. I found a seat, but other passengers were standing. Mr. Christie’s successor as governor, Phil Murphy, has called New Jersey Transit a “national disgrace” and has pledged better funding and improvements.
Once we reached Penn Station, the escalator leading from the platform was broken, creating a logjam at the narrow stairways as passengers struggled with heavy luggage.
Ms. Snyder said that New Jersey Transit maintains nine escalators on the Seventh Avenue side of Penn Station and that, as of this week, all were functioning. But she recommended passengers use the Eighth Avenue side of the station, which offers better access to and from platforms.
After passing through Penn Station (no further comment needed) the final indignity was a broken escalator leading to Seventh Avenue, which is Amtrak’s responsibility. The 39 escalators in Penn Station maintained by Amtrak, many of them dating to the 1960s, are notorious for malfunctioning. They can take months to repair, as The Wall Street Journal reported in 2015.
Last year, referring to commuters’ “summer of agony,” Mr. Cuomo said conditions at Penn Station had become “intolerable” and sent a letter to the White House asking Mr. Trump for emergency funding. The governor also called for removing the station from cash-starved Amtrak’s jurisdiction as part of a “long-term solution.”
Other than acknowledging receipt of the letter, the White House hasn’t responded.