The Port Authority Bus Terminal: "If Hell Had a Hell"

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Late night patrons at the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

"Functionally obsolete."

That's how Port Authority executive director Pat Foye recently described the agency's over-crowded Midtown bus terminal. TV comedian John Oliver has another name for it: "The single worst place on Planet Earth."

Of course Oliver is exaggerating — but not by much.

The problems begin as soon as you walk in. There's no arrivals or departures boards for the buses. The information booth looks abandoned, and the signage is sparse and bewildering. There are mystery leaks, cell phone dead zones and harsh lighting.

Hoboken resident Adam Wade, who's been commuting on NJ Transit for 16 years, said the Port Authority Bus Terminal has just about worn him down, especially when he works all day and arrives at the station to confront a seemingly endless line to board his bus. "The line moves and then it stops — it could stop for 10, 15 minutes," he said. "It could stop for 25 to 30 minutes."

Rich Barone, transportation director of the Regional Plan Association, is an expert in the terminal's dysfunction. "There's so many people, the gates themselves just can't hold them all," he said. "So you see it all the time: people streaming all the way down the concourse, the lines going on forever."

Wade said the wait can be even worse than it sounds. "No matter what, I will get stuck for at least 10 minutes in front of the Men's Room," he said. "The last place in New York you want to be is standing in front of the Men's Room at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. If hell had a hell, that would be it." 

Barone says the terminal is overtaxed with 7,500 buses competing each weekday for not enough gates. So the buses circle, clogging the streets while spewing pollution. And it's going to get worse: with the cancellation of the ARC Tunnel, which would have doubled train capacity under the Hudson River, the main way to get more commuters between New Jersey and Manhattan is by bus.

The bus terminal opened in 1950 and expanded in the 1970s. Since then, the facility has lost hundreds of millions of dollars, in part by subsidizing NJ transit with artificially low gate fees. The building has been stagnating as ridership has been rising: a third of all New Jersey commuters now herd themselves through the place.

The Port Authority once had plans to lessen the crowding by building a bigger terminal. But Governor Christie's team — the same appointees who cooked up Bridgegate — decided to fund other projects, such as extending the PATH train to Newark Airport and rebuilding the Pulaski Skyway.

But since Christie's first team at the Port Authority resigned in the wake of Bridgegate, there's been a growing sense of outrage over the terminal.  Facing an outcry, the board finally voted to spend $90 million on basic improvements, including upgraded air condition and ventilation, and less dismal rest rooms.

New authority chairman John Degnan put it this way at last month's meeting: "People ought to arrive at work not hot and dirty and tired and frustrated by an everyday experience that doesn't meet normal standards."

But even that admittedly low threshold is a long way off.

The authority is working on a master plan for the terminal's next incarnation, whatever that will be. The plan is due in the fall and is expected to include the option of selling air rights to a developer who'd put up a tower with a new terminal at its base. But that's a decade or more away. So sorry, New Jersey bus commuters. What you have now, with some planned improvements, is what you get for the near future.