Good Riddance: Questionable PATH Extension to Newark Liberty Won’t Leave the Station

Existing New Jersey Transit station at Newark Liberty, image by Joseph Barillari from WikimediaExisting New Jersey Transit station at Newark Liberty, image by Joseph Barillari from Wikimedia

When word started circulating of a Port Authority push to extend the PATH rapid transit network from Newark’s Penn Station to the city’s big international airport, the Wall Street Journal’s Ted Mann reported that the extension appeared to be part of a quid-pro-quo deal between Governor Chris Christie’s administration and United Airlines.

As part of the governor’s longstanding attempt to revive Atlantic City (how’s that going, governor?), the Journal reported, Christie’s representatives offered United Airlines a shiny new PATH extension to Newark Liberty International Airport (where United is the dominant carrier), in exchange for the airline flying into Atlantic City “International” Airport.

And now, a new report from Mann makes it clear that the PATH extension to Newark Liberty and United service to Atlantic City were, in fact, linked – and that with the demise of United’s Atlantic City service, the PATH extension is also in jeopardy:

United Airlines will halt its service to Atlantic City International Airport in December, pulling the plug on a seven-month experiment that surrogates of Gov. Chris Christie helped negotiate as part of the administration’s effort to revive that city’s sagging fortunes. […]

This week, there have been signs that the PATH project won’t be moving ahead soon. On Nov. 3, the Port Authority canceled bidding requests for environmental and transportation planners for the project, with no notice when the bidding might resume.

While YIMBY is generally supportive of transit expansion throughout the region, this project was a highly questionable use of scarce resources, and we’re not shedding any tears over its demise.

The most obvious hint that the project was not worth funding was the fact that it wiggled its way into the Port Authority’s capital plan as a carrot dangled in front of United Airlines.

But beyond that, even on its merits, it was a wildly unnecessary project. With the North River Tunnels – the only conduit for NJ Transit and Amtrak trains between New York and New Jersey – in dire straits, and no funding plan for a new pair of tubes, spending a 10-digit sum of money on a redundant connection to Newark’s airport would have been unconscionable.

In German-speaking countries, there’s a transit planning saying: Organisation vor Elektronik vor Beton, or organization before electronics before concrete. The idea is that whatever goals you’re trying to achieve, it’s best to go for the cheapest fixes first – organizational things like running more trains on existing tracks, or upgrading signaling systems to handle more trains per hour – before embarking on multibillion-dollar “concrete” capital projects like new rail lines.

In the case of access to Newark Liberty, there’s an obvious cheap organizational fix: run more New Jersey Transit trains to Penn Station! NJ Transit already operates main line rail service between Manhattan’s Penn Station and the Newark Liberty AirTrain station (the same place that the PATH extension would have deposited riders – it was never even intended to be a one-seat ride).

Map of the duplicative PATH extension, image by the Wall Street Journal

Map of the duplicative PATH extension, by the Wall Street Journal

NJ Transit cannot run more trains during peak hours to Newark, but service then is pretty good anyway. It’s mid-day, evenings, and weekends that need the extra service, and during those periods, there’s plenty of slack in the North River Tunnels. And while NJT’s service only operates from Penn, not the World Trade Center (as the proposed PATH service would have), it’s a quick 10-minute ride on any number of subway lines from the Financial District to Penn Station, which is more accessible to most New Yorkers than the World Trade Center anyway.

When YIMBY asked New Jersey Transit last year why they don’t simply run more trains to Newark Liberty on the existing tracks – something that would be orders of magnitude cheaper than the $1.5 billion proposed PATH extension – a spokesman replied:

NJ Transit service is designed to specifically meet customer demand – not only along the bus and rail lines serving the Newark Airport, but across our entire system. Our schedules reflect this reality, and they are consistently adjusted based on ridership trends. NJ Transit is providing a ride for every bus, rail and light rail customer who wants one.

The obvious implication here – which another spokesperson strenuously denied, but you can decide for yourself – is that NJ Transit didn’t see the need for the service that the Port Authority was considering spending $1.5 billion on. (Nor did a few regional transit experts we spoke to last year, including one former Port Authority staffer.)

The Port Authority, as is their custom, never responded to our inquiry regarding NJ Transit’s evaluation of the necessity of more service to Newark Liberty. We do, however, know that they got the email, since we soon received a call from a different, quite unhappy NJT spokesperson, who took pains to deny that their initial statement was any sort of commentary on the Port Authority’s plans. (For all the talk of a new era of transparency at the Port Authority, their press office has completely clammed up since Bridgegate broke, and has not responded to a single one of YIMBY’s emails since then, for any story.)

Whatever money the Port Authority was going to spend and request from the federal government for this project should be redirected towards a new Hudson River crossing. Which, in addition to giving NJ Transit and Amtrak more capacity through a crucial regional choke point, would also enable the railroads to run more trains from Manhattan to Newark’s airport.

We applaud the Port Authority’s decision to not spend $1.5 billion to cater to a tiny number of airport travelers, and urge them to start focusing on true regional needs, like a new trans-Hudson rail crossing.

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