Big projects could be slashed from Port Authority budget as coronavirus batters travel revenues

Noble Horvath

Port Authority officials reported travel gains at some facilities as others struggled to recover from coronavirus fueled passenger traffic and revenue downturns after the region started reopening from restrictions. But bi-state agency officials warned they will have to make some “hard decisions” in the next three months about the 2021 […]

Port Authority officials reported travel gains at some facilities as others struggled to recover from coronavirus fueled passenger traffic and revenue downturns after the region started reopening from restrictions.

But bi-state agency officials warned they will have to make some “hard decisions” in the next three months about the 2021 budget and mega-projects that could be cut from the agency’s $32 billion capital plan. This year’s operating budget is $7 billion.

Bridge and Tunnels traffic provided the brightest news, with traffic only off by 11% from pre-COVID-19 levels and truck traffic returning and in some cases, exceeding pre-pandemic volumes, said Rick Cotton, Port Authority executive director.

The volume of cargo shipped to the ports has recovered to the same levels as 2019, he said.

But passenger traffic at the airports and PATH rail system are recovering slower than economic experts predicted, Cotton said. Airports are one of the authority’s largest revenue makers.

“Between Sept. 14 to Sept. 18, airport passenger volume was down by 80% compared to September 2019,” he said. “PATH traffic was down by 79%. Airports and PATH show a slower recovery than expert economists predicted.”

That reflects national trends for the airline industry and public transportation as passengers remain concerned, despite carriers stepping up cleaning and sanitizing facilities and vehicles.

Traffic volume in 2019 hit record breaking levels at authority facilities. COVID-19 travel restrictions and drop-offs translated into a $1.1 billion revenue decline from projections for the year, Cotton said. That translated to a $165 million a month revenue loss, that puts the authority on track for an estimated $3 billion revenue loss by 20121, he said.

“The impact remains devastating,” he said

The agency has requested $3 billion in federal aid from the next CARES act to recoup revenue losses and officials warned that mega-projects not currently under construction could face a budgetary axe.

The authority has “three hard months” to get through, said Kevin O’Toole, board chairman.

“In 6 days we’ll enter last quarter of 2020 and some significant and hard decisions have to be made for next 24 months to get agency back on its feet,” he said.

But officials were silent about how those decisions could play out for projects, customers or employees, when asked for details.

“The end of this year will be intense in terms of our (2021) operating budget, it will be intense in terms of the difficult choices for the capital plan, but we’re in the middle of that and we have nothing to announce at this time,” Cotton said. “We’re reviewing the totality of our situation.”

The only given is that ongoing construction projects of a new Terminal One at Newark Liberty and LaGuardia airports will be completed, which includes building new AirTrains at both airports, Cotton said. Newark’s trouble-prone monorail has reached the end of its useful life and Authority officials committed to Gov. Phil Murphy it would be replaced.

The two AirTrains are part of completing those projects to get to 21st century global standards,” Cotton said. “(Public transit) access to airport ranks as a top a priority.”

Other projects such as the long awaited expansion and renovation of the Port Authority Bus Terminal in mid-Manhattan are in a form of limbo.

An environmental report for a proposal to build two additional levels on top of the existing terminal is still being reviewed by the Federal Transit Administration, Cotton said.

Originally, plans called for bus terminal construction to be funded from the next capital plan in 2026.

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Larry Higgs may be reached at [email protected].

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