Newark councilman defends proposed $1.5B PATH extension after 'attack' by state pols

By Dan Ivers | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on September 15, 2015

Newark Councilman John Sharpe James is defending a planned $1.5 billion extension of the Port Authority's PATH line after state legislators called for a spending freeze on the project.

 

NEWARK – Councilman John Sharpe James is coming out strongly in support of plans to extend the PATH system to Newark Liberty International Airport, which suddenly finds itself in jeopardy.

During a meeting at City Hall Tuesday afternoon, James called on his council colleagues, Mayor Ras Baraka and other officials to rally around the $1.5 billion plan, which he said was "under attack from other legislators in other counties."

In an interview following the meeting, James declined to identify which legislators he was referring to, though he clearly appeared to refer to Bergen County state senators Loretta Weinberg, Paul Sarlo and Robert Gordon.

During a hearing in Trenton last week, the trio called for all spending on the project to be frozen until investigators determine whether it had been influenced by United Airlines officials, who are suspected of trying to curry favor with ex-Port Authority Chairman David Samson by offering flights from Newark to a small airport close to the chairman's vacation home in South Carolina.

United, which accounts for 73 percent of flights at the Newark airport, would stand to benefit from the extension, which would provide a one-seat transit ride to the airport's monorail from the World Trade Center PATH Station in lower Manhattan. 

"The Port Authority should suspend any further spending on that project until United Airlines' internal investigation, the findings, become public, until the criminal investigation of that becomes public," Sarlo said at the Sept. 10 hearing.

James, however, said the project had been extensively studied by regional planning groups and the Newark Housing Authority, and was not being pushed through haphazardly.

"This expansion is not an overnight decision," he said. "It's sorely needed and its probably one of the most massive projects in this area."

The defense echoed that of Port Authority chairman John Degnan, who said last week that the project had been planned long before his or Samson's tenure overseeing the agency.

James, who represents the city's South Ward, said residents of the Frelinghuysen and Dayton Street area, where the extension and a new train station would be built, are counting on it to bring jobs and new fortunes to an area that has long been rife with crime and abject poverty.

Residents in the area have reported deteriorating conditions in the area since much of the Seth Boyden housing project was abandoned, leaving behind empty buildings that have attracted junkies, squatters and prostitutes that cater to the many truck drivers who travel through. The neighborhood is also fairly isolated, sandwiched between Weequahic Park and industrial areas closer to the airport.

"Its kind of like a forgotten part of the South Ward," James said.

Following news of the Port Authority's commitment to the extension, multiple hotels have begun plans for construction in the areas outside Weequahic Park, which officials have hoped might spur further development in one of the city's most economically depressed neighborhoods.

Fellow council members expressed their willingness to support the project at today's meeting, and James said he would also contact officials from communities such as Irvington and Elizabeth situated close to the proposed extension.

James said he was concerned that those calling for a halt to work on the PATH line might have reservations beyond any potential malfeasance by United. During last week's hearing, Weinberg said the nearly $2 billion the project might require might be better used on a new Port Authority Bus Terminal or the proposed Gateway trans-Hudson rail tunnel.

"I believe the folks who have been talking have their other pet projects they want to fund," James said.

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