Tuesday, September 04, 2012

NJ Transit's Busing Problem

I've regularly focused on NJ Transit's woeful rail on-time performance because I'm a regular rail commuter, but their bus operations aren't much better. In fact, 10% of all buses are leaving the Port Authority Bus Terminal (PABT) in Midtown Manhattan late.

And by late, we're referring to a bus that leaves more than 6 minutes after its scheduled time. That's a pretty generous situation to begin with, but the problems are as much structural as they are about the NJ Transit's performance.

The PABT is obsolete and can't handle the traffic loads. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey operates the PABT and the Lincoln Tunnel. Moreover, there's no place for buses to queue up in Manhattan at the terminal so that they can arrive at their allotted gates in a timely fashion.

An effort to build a bus garage has essentially gone nowhere; the Port Authority has shelved the project indefinitely because of other competing infrastructure needs. NJ Transit lacks the funds to build a garage of its own, and the renaissance of Midtown Manhattan makes land acquisition the most expensive portion of the costs.

It would have allowed buses to be lined up in Manhattan for use as needed instead of the current plan that sends empty buses back to New Jersey to await the rush hour needs. That adds to the congestion at the Lincoln Tunnel and means that a contraflow accident (in the afternoon - this means traffic coming into Manhattan rather than going outbound) can tie up the buses across the entire NJ Transit operation out of the PABT.

Capacity constraints at the Lincoln Tunnel are also to blame. While the Port Authority operates a dedicated bus lane during rush hour, there's no capacity to deal with accidents that can cause a ripple backup all the way to the NJ Turnpike or snarl traffic on the Manhattan side.

There's no easy fix to the problem. And it's going to get worse as NJ Transit and transportation experts see the number of commuters increasing. The dedicated bus lane is operating at capacity, and the only other option would be to operate a second dedicated bus lane during rush hour, but that also means that the problems for what to do with all those arriving buses has to be addressed.

The costs aren't just to the Port Authority or NJ Transit. All the time lost in commuting affects the economy of the entire region. Traffic jams and lost productivity sap the economy. Expanded capacity at the bus terminal and tunnel would improve traffic conditions, but it would also mean that the Port Authority could lose revenue from tunnel traffic; taking away another lane for use as a dedicated bus lane would further restrict passenger vehicle traffic. It's a balancing act, but if the Port Authority's job is to help make the region's economy thrive, then dedicating another lane to bus traffic makes sense. It would also spur more people to use mass transit - though NJ Transit would have to do a much better job in scheduling more buses and rail trips during all hours of the day to make it more convenient to use mass transit.

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