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‘Notorious’ Port Authority Bus Terminal May Get a $10 Billion Overhaul

Few public spaces in the country have been derided so thoroughly and so often as the Port Authority Bus Terminal in the heart of Manhattan.

The dreary 70-year-old station, with its leaky ceilings and dingy vestibules, has become synonymous with the overburdened, crumbling infrastructure that has made commuting in New York City a grim slog.

Now, the agency that operates the bus terminal — the busiest in the country — has settled on a final proposal for transforming it into a 21st-century transit hub capable of handling many more buses.

The project’s announcement on Thursday follows the opening on Jan. 1 of the Moynihan Train Hall, a majestic, light-filled terminus meant to alleviate overcrowding and offer a far more appealing gateway to New York than Pennsylvania Station, which is arguably the most miserable train hub in the United States.

Taken together, the projects, along with the rebuilding of La Guardia Airport and an overhaul of Kennedy International Airport, signal an ambitious rebuilding of New York’s tattered infrastructure after decades of decline, and they could provide the city a vital boost as it struggles to recover from the pandemic.

The bus terminal plan, which has been in the works for more than seven contentious years, would cost as much as $10 billion and could take a decade to complete. It was unveiled amid a steep decline in the financial condition of the agency, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, that operates the terminal.

The proposal also comes as New York City is trying to rebound from one of the biggest economic crises in memory and tackling growing questions about the future of Midtown Manhattan office space.

The virus has killed more than 26,000 city residents, while eliminating hundreds of thousands of jobs, forcing the permanent closing of hundreds of restaurants and other small business, and draining New York of billions of dollars of tax revenues. The commercial real estate industry, one of the city’s main economic engines, has been ravaged, with 14 percent of office space in Midtown vacant and only about 10 percent of Manhattan’s one million workers going to their offices as of late October.

Many companies are keeping their work force home through the middle of the year, and some employers are shrinking their Manhattan footprint and shifting to a bigger work-from-home model. Some of the city’s biggest developers, worrying that office buildings will not fill up even as the pandemic recedes, are pushing a plan to turn vacant office space into housing.

Just a fraction of the riders who stream into the city’s subway stations and suburban transit hubs have returned, and many remain leery of crowding onto buses and trains, raising questions about the future of commuting and imposing severe financial strain on transit agencies.

The Port Authority appears more bullish on the city’s prospects as it pursues an expensive bus terminal. The agency hopes to get help in financing the project by selling rights to put a commercial tower on top of the expanded terminal and build three other high-rises nearby.

The Port Authority is also counting on federal aid to avoid jeopardizing plans for major improvements to other transportation facilities it operates in the region, including La Guardia and Kennedy, as well as Newark Liberty International Airport.

Port Authority officials estimated that, by early next year, the pandemic would have wiped out about $3 billion in expected revenue largely because of the plunge in air travel.

Even though several big projects stand in line ahead of the bus terminal in the Port Authority’s building plans, agency officials say their intention to replace it is staunch.

“The Port Authority is committed to dramatically transforming one of the region’s most notorious and out-of-date transit facilities,” said Rick Cotton, the agency’s executive director.

Mr. Cotton said it was too soon to provide a reliable estimate of the project’s cost, which has been projected in the past at $7.5 billion to $10 billion. The proposal, which he called “ingenious,” must still get through environmental reviews before it can compete for any federal funding. He said the agency had a “10-year time frame” for completing the project.

An earlier proposal had caused an uproar among community leaders because it suggested the liberal use of eminent domain powers to relocate the terminal. But the revised plan is less likely to rile up the terminal’s neighbors in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood because it does not include the taking of any private property.

Instead, they would rebuild and enlarge the existing bus terminal while keeping it open for travelers.

The new proposal also addresses a constant complaint of Manhattan residents: the steady stream of intercity buses that pick up and drop passengers at various curbsides, snarling traffic and blocking sidewalks. The plan calls for building a depot west of the main terminal that could accommodate those buses and provide storage for others.

The Port Authority has eliminated several alternatives, including building the new terminal under the old one, under the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center or in New Jersey.

“They’ve come up with a much better plan than they had originally,” said Thomas K. Wright, chief executive of the Regional Plan Association, an influential planning group.

Mr. Wright said replacing the terminal is a necessity no matter how much it costs because of the integral role it plays in the city’s daily commute. More than 250,000 people passed through it on a typical weekday before the pandemic, according to the Port Authority. Since March, that traffic has dropped by more than 65 percent.

“New York ceases to exist without its connections to the surrounding communities and the work force,” Mr. Wright said. “Without it, the city enters into a period of decline.”

The bus terminal, a brick hulk perched at the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel, has long exceeded its capacity — when it opened in late 1950, it was expected to handle 60,000 passengers a day. Though the station was rehabilitated in the early 1980s, it cannot accommodate the crush of commuters, mostly from New Jersey, who use it in normal times.

The Port Authority wants the new terminal to be able to handle 1,000 buses during the peak evening rush hour, up from about 850 today. It also would be designed to provide charging equipment for electric buses, according to the plan.

Buses may be less romantic than trains, but other big cities have been investing in their bus transit systems to help alleviate traffic and pollution from cars. More than a dozen American cities, including San Francisco, Denver and Raleigh, N.C., have moved in the past decade to build new bus stations or create multimodal transit hubs that bring together bus and rail services, said Joseph P. Schwieterman, a professor of public service at DePaul University in Chicago.

“You get a lot of bang for your buck with bus terminals because you can pack so much into a small space and move a lot of people,” Mr. Schwieterman said.

In San Francisco, a $2.2 billion regional transportation hub, the Salesforce Transit Center, consolidated regional bus service in 2018 in a terminal that covers more than four downtown blocks and includes a fitness center, stores and a rooftop park. There are plans to add rail service that would connect with the region and state.

Of course, no American city compares to New York in the sheer number of buses that converge on it every morning during rush hours. In addition to the suburban commuter fleets, the city is a hub for regional and national bus companies and has the largest municipal bus system in the nation.

“New York is in a class of its own with its massive schedule of operations,” Mr. Schwieterman said. “You have this crush of motor coaches during rush hour. It’s a tremendous logistical challenge.”

But the questions of what to do and how to pay for a new bus terminal have bedeviled officials of the Port Authority for years. In early 2017, after heated debates among its commissioners, the agency inserted $3.5 billion into its long-term capital plan for replacing the terminal.

The project will cost far more than that, Mr. Cotton said. But the agency hopes to raise much of the balance by selling development rights and striking a deal with the city to allow the developers to make payments toward the project in lieu of local taxes.

The agency also intends to seek federal transportation funds, which it does not normally receive. Port Authority projects usually are paid for with a combination of the agency’s own money and contributions from private developers. The agency collects tolls at its bridges and tunnels that connect New York City to New Jersey, and fees and rents at its airports, seaport and other facilities.

Port Authority officials have pleaded for emergency aid to compensate for the revenue it has lost during the pandemic.

“We’ve been sounding this alarm since the early weeks of last spring,” Mr. Cotton said. “We believe the projects in the Port Authority capital plan can make a major contribution to restarting the economy, and we can have a big impact in terms of near-term spending on projects that are ready to go.”

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