Rethinking Port Authority

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For a two-way terminal


  • Photo: Teri Tynes, via flickr

If there’s one thing that experts agree on about the Port Authority Bus Terminal on Eighth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets, it’s that the aging structure needs replacement. The original wing was opened in 1959 and designed for much smaller and lighter buses than those in use today. The north wing opened later, in 1979, but even that is now almost 40 years in the past.

The terminal serves both commuter buses to New Jersey and long-distance buses to other parts of the country. Peak demand is expected to increase 35 to 51 percent by 2040, according to the Port Authority. The structure suffers from serious overcrowding during rush hours, not to mention infrastructure issues such as cracked floors and deteriorating ceiling tiles.

The bus terminal does have its good points, such as the rolling-ball kinetic sculpture “42nd Street Ballroom” in the north wing and the statue of Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden character at the entrance to the south wing. Still, both of these can easily be relocated.

For the past few years, several plans have been floated for a new facility, all of them on the far West Side. Among them were one that would put the entire terminal underground, one that would use land already owned by the Port Authority, with an elevated pedestrian plaza above Dyer Avenue; and one that would move the bus terminal to the lower level of the Javits Center.

In April, Port Authority officials approved a plan, but the agency’s commissioners, representing the Authority’s highest governing body, rejected it because of the estimated $9 billion price tag. The hefty cost reflected the fact extra-heavy fabricated steel was needed to support those 30-ton buses. So now, it’s back to the drawing board.

Whatever plan is finally adopted, I hope it can rectify a flaw in the design of the current terminal. This time, let there be access to cabs and other services at both the uptown and downtown avenues near the terminal — not just one.

I can’t count the number of times, coming back from a bus trip with my wife, that I’ve had to get a cab on Eighth Avenue and, because we live in Chelsea, the cab had to make an extra turn onto a crosstown street to reach either Seventh or Ninth Avenues, where traffic proceeds downtown.

In a small town or city. that wouldn’t make that much of a difference. But in Midtown Manhattan, even one or two extra blocks can add five minutes and several dollars to one’s cab ride. And if that’s true for us, it’s also true that countless thousands who live further south, in the Village, in Battery Park City, and beyond that, in Brooklyn and Staten Island. Wouldn’t it just be simpler to exit onto a downtown avenue and take a cab straight home?

When I once asked a community board member about why everything was concentrated on the Eighth Avenue side, she launched into a long, complicated explanation about traffic patterns. More to the point, I believe, was the explanation that a bus terminal worker gave me when I asked one day: “When this was built, what was on Ninth Avenue?”

In the late 1950s, when the Port Authority Bus Terminal was being built, Ninth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen had still not fully emerged from the shadows of the elevated line, which had been torn down in 1940. The avenue was dominated by cheap bars, rundown tenements and street gangs. It was “West Side Story” territory.

In the context of that time, it made perfect sense to have a grand entrance with light and air, shops and restaurants on Eighth Avenue, while the Ninth Avenue side has no stores and only a comparatively narrow staircase as an entrance.

Those days are long over, however, and Ninth and 10th avenues have improved dramatically. Indeed, there are so many young people going to bars and restaurants on Ninth Avenue at night that it looks like another Williamsburg.

So, wherever a new bus terminal is finally built, make it a “two-way” bus terminal, with equal access to both uptown and downtown avenues.

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