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Port Authority Pledges Billions for Airport Upgrades and New Bus Terminal


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Port Authority Pledges Billions for Airport Upgrades and New Bus Terminal

A rendering of a proposed redevelopment of La Guardia Airport, in Queens. CreditNew York Governor's Office

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey voted on Thursday to spend tens of billions of dollars on transforming La Guardia Airport, enhancing Newark Liberty International Airport and building a new central bus terminal in Midtown Manhattan.
“What you witnessed today is the most important board meeting in Port Authority history,” said Patrick J. Foye, the authority’s executive director. Mr. Foye said he thought it represented “the single largest allocation of capital” by the authority in one day.
While the agency’s capital spending plan already included major projects at La Guardia and Newark, it did not factor in a new bus terminal. So the decision to finance a new terminal before a final cost had been determined or before a plan or location for the facility had been approved came as something of a surprise.
It reflected the friction and divided priorities to which the authority’s bistate structure can lead — something captured in heated exchanges between John J. Degnan, the chairman of the board, appointed by Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a Republican, and Mr. Foye, appointed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, a Democrat.
At one point, as a motion to finance construction at La Guardia was being discussed, Mr. Foye noted that no dollar amount had been attached to the new bus terminal and suggested it could cost $15 billion.
Mr. Degnan said that number had been raised in a private meeting between the two men and that it was “preposterously” high. He then told Mr. Foye to be quiet.
“The motion has passed,” he said. “Keep it to yourself.”
The board also approved spending $70 million for another major transportation infrastructure project: a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River to ease congestion for travelers from New Jersey. The cost of the tunnel, called the Gateway Project, will be divided between the authority and the federal government.
Despite the bickering, the commitment to spend so much money on vital infrastructure was viewed positively, if a bit warily, by many transportation advocates who had long pressed for improving crumbling, outdated and generally miserable facilities.
In fact, a point of agreement among the fractious board members was that all the major transit hubs under discussion were the equivalent of “circles of hell,” in Mr. Degnan’s words.
Mr. Cuomo has made it a priority to tackle La Guardia. He outlined his vision last year during a news conference with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who had previously likened the airport to one “in a third-world country.”
The plan there calls for replacing multiple, disconnected terminals with one main, architecturally unified terminal.
The building that houses Terminal B would be demolished and replaced with a larger structure closer to the Grand Central Parkway. It would include new terminal space, feature a new central arrivals and departures hall and link to Terminals C and D.
Mr. Cuomo has also boasted about the way the redevelopment would be carried out — by establishing the largest public-private infrastructure project in the country.
New York officials estimate that the cost of the project will be $4 billion, with the majority of it paid for by private firms leading the development.
“This vote marks a critical step forward in our effort to overhaul La Guardia Airport,” Mr. Cuomo said in a statement following the authority’s vote.“Our plan will fundamentally transform La Guardia — replacing what is now an outdated and poorly designed complex with the world-class airport New York has always deserved.”
The vote on Thursday allows construction to begin this year.
But as the authority board approved the La Guardia plan, some officials, including Mr. Degnan, said the project’s true cost would actually be $5.3 billion.
Mr. Degnan arrived at that figure, in part, by including the cost of work that had already been done at the airport over the past 12 years.
This calculation drew the ire of Mr. Foye, who accused Mr. Degnan of playing games with the numbers and using a standard for the La Guardia project that had not been applied to other infrastructure projects.
For instance, he said, a $2.3 billion renovation of a main terminal at Newark that the board approved on Thursday did not include the cost of recent renovations.
But the dispute was about more than an accounting disagreement: It underscored a constant struggle between New York and New Jersey for money and primacy.
It was also a not-so-subtle effort from those on the New Jersey side to encourage approval of the bus terminal but on terms they could support.
They opposed an idea the board had proposed to build a new bus terminal in New Jersey, arguing that doing so would strain an already overburdenedNew Jersey Transit system.
Some New Jersey lawmakers attended the board meeting to make their case.
The current bus terminal, which opened in 1950 in Midtown Manhattan, is the second-busiest in the world — after one in Tel Aviv — with more than 66 million people passing through it annually.
It is widely considered about as appealing as an open lesion.
Last year, five options for replacing it were presented to the board, three of which were projected to cost at least $10 billion.
None could be completed before 2027.
Still, on Thursday, the board voted to approve financing a new terminal whatever the ultimate cost, even though it was unclear how the authority would pay for all the projects included in its capital budget.
When a board member noted that the agency had committed to financing about 400 projects and would have to make difficult decisions about which to abandon, Mr. Degnan made it clear that Thursday’s resolution on the bus terminal was binding.
Joseph J. Sitt, a developer and the chairman of the Global Gateway Alliance, a group that advocates improvements for New York City’s airports, praised the news that the authority was moving forward with enhancements to La Guardia and Newark.
But he worried that the authority might be taking on too much.
“What can’t happen is another project again jumping the line and putting airport modernization on the back burner,” he said. “A better bus terminal matters, but we have already had decades of siphoning off airport money to fund other projects, which has left New York area airports behind their competitors.”

Noah Remnick contributed reporting.

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