Port Authority boss worried about projects he’d have to axe without $3B in federal coronavirus aid

Posted May 20, 2020

Port Authority executive director Rick Cotton looked worried as he stood across a creek from the massive Terminal One construction site at Newark Liberty Airport.

The massive steel behemoth, where construction was nosily buzzing along, wasn’t his concern Wednesday afternoon. It was a $3 billion revenue drop that could force officials to chop other projects from the bi-state agency’s ambitious $20 billion, 10-year capital plan list.

Illustrating how much the coronavirus has crippled travel in two months, only one airliner could be heard taking off during his 20-minute outdoor press conference.

Normally, 75,000 people a day depart from Newark Airport, this Memorial Day weekend they expect 2,000 to 3,000 people will fly, Cotton said

“Normally we’re a self sustaining agency. The drop in travel volume has blown a $3 billion hole in our revenue,” he said. The consequence of that drastic fall puts at risk $20 billion worth of capital spending.”

A week earlier on May 13, the Port Authority asked the federal government for $3 billion in aid to offset revenue lost when coronavirus travel restrictions cut the legs out from under what had been record travel volumes in 2019. Airports and the PATH rail system saw ridership declines over 95%.

Cotton used similar arguments made by state Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti for supporting capital plans and toll increases to pay for them at the New Jersey Turnpike Authority. Construction work will create direct construction jobs and have a ripple effect for related businesses, helping a post COVID19 economic recovery, he said.

“If our capital plan were not to go forward, we won’t be in a position to drive an economic recovery,” Cotton said. “The region would lose economic activity and tens of thousands of jobs.”

But his concern was also about the fate of projects that haven’t gone to construction, to replace 20th Century infrastructure such as the Port Authority Bus Terminal, the aging Newark Airport monorail, replacing older terminals at Newark and JFK and building a LaGuardia Airport Airtrain to connect to subways and the Long Island Rail Road.

“If we don’t get federal aid, we’re going to be looking at every project.” he said. We are looking at a forecast of what we can afford with dramatically reduced revenue.”

Efficiency measures have been taken by the authority, including closing 100 unused airport gates, consolidating operations and closing parts of airport terminals and a wing of the Port Authority Bus Terminal that has saved $300 million, Cotton said. Airports are only open to ticketed passengers, employees and contractors. PATH rail service has been reduced.

“Operations have been scaled down as much as possible,” he said

On Wednesday, U.S. Reps. Albio Sires, D-NJ and Jerrold Nadler, D-NY presented a letter signed by 25 bi-state members of Congress to house leadership in support of the Port Authority’s request.

“It is imperative that the Port Authority receive the financial assistance it needs to weather the ongoing public health crisis." Sires said.

Two bills that could help the agency are moving through the Congress, a $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill that passed the house, but faces and uncertain future in the U.S. Senate and the $500 million State and Municipal Assistance for Recovery and Transition act bill, proposed by U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, D-NJ.

We want to move forward with a new Newark airport and a new JFK,” he said. “We’ve gone to federal government for aid and now Congress is debating aid to local and state agencies, we are a local agency.”

On Wednesday, U.S. Reps Abio Sires, D-NJ and Jerrold Nadler, D-NY present a letter signed by 25 bi-state members of congress in support of the Port Authority’s request

“It is imperative that the Port Authority receive the financial assistance it needs to weather the ongoing public health crisis." Sires said

But different segments of transportation are also seeking to make up for their revenue losses – groups representing state transportation departments asked for $50 billion, toll agencies requested $9 billion and transit agencies asked for $33 billion.

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