What we know about United Airlines makes this PATH project suspect | Editorial

By Star-Ledger Editorial Board
on September 13, 2015

Christie walks with David Samson at Newark Liberty International Airport in November 2013, after they, Senate President Steve Sweeney and United Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek announced that United Airlines will begin service to Atlantic City International Airport starting in April.

 

It seemed a strange decision when the Port Authority agreed to spend $1.5 billion to extend the PATH lines to Newark Airport, given that the agency's capital plan included no money for more pressing needs, like building a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River.

Now, in the wake of the unfolding United Airlines scandal, there is reason to at least suspect that sinister motives may have been at work.

United fired its CEO and two top deputies last week after an internal probe into the airline's dealings with the Port Authority while David Samson was its chairman. We don't know what's in the airline's internal report. But several sources have said that United essentially bribed Samson by arranging a direct flight between Newark and his vacation home in South Carolina, at Samson's request.

The "chairman's flight," as Samson called it, was typically about half full, and was cancelled three days after Samson stepped down as chairman.

That raises the obvious question: If a bribe was paid, what did United get in return? Is it possible that Samson pushed this PATH extension as part of a corrupt deal?

Let's be clear: We are not accusing Samson or United of criminal conduct. That has not been established. And we are not saying that extending the PATH line is an inherently bad idea.

But it is indeed time to hit the pause button. Several Democratic legislators want the Port Authority to halt any further commitment to this project until more is known about Samson's interactions with United. That seems like a prudent request to us. Why rush a shaky plan to spend $1.5 billion on a discretionary project when the state is so broke and the circumstances are so shady?

This extension would undeniably benefit United Airlines, whose main hub is in Newark. It would get Wall Street business people to their flights without having to switch trains. And it may have other selling points, too. As Sen. Loretta Weinberg says, "It might be a good idea. We could count it number five on the list."

But at the very top should be both the tunnel and Port Authority's overcrowded bus depot. If we don't build a new tunnel before the existing tubes shut down, rush hour rail traffic to Manhattan will be cut by three-quarters. That's a commuter catastrophe. And there are already long lines and jams getting buses in and out of Port Authority's midtown terminal, which has no room for expansion.

We don't even have a plan yet for its rebuilding. That's got to be a priority. These buses carry more than 200,000 people every single workday. According to one estimate, the PATH extension would only serve about 7,000 daily. Not to mention that you can already get to Newark Airport by train. The extension just cuts about 10 or 15 minutes off the trip.

Do we really need to spend more than a billion dollars for such an incremental gain?

Maybe this project stands on it own good merits. But let's not commit ourselves until we're sure. There is a questionable relationship behind it, one that still needs to be understood fully.

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