Packed PATH Already-overflowing trains will face still more commuters

Sardines might be more comfortable than the rush hour commuters who take PATH trains into and out of New York, and it might get worse before it gets better.

This news comes from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the harried commuters who take the trains every day.

“I hate it,” said Gabby Smith, who waited at Pavonia/Newport station one morning as a brimming 33rd Street train passed her by. She drives from Somerville to drop off her husband at Newport and then catches the train into midtown Manhattan. All told, it takes her two and a half hours.

The crowding and rudeness are what really annoy her.

“They step all over you,” she said of people trying to board the trains.

PATH (Port Authority Trans Hudson) officials acknowledge that the trains are becoming more and more crowded, but they say they are hamstrung to alleviate the stream of passengers. Yet others say the Port Authority has lacked the foresight to plan for this growth. And now that development in Jersey City is exploding, the number of riders could take the system to its breaking point.

In the first six months of this year alone, the number of riders jumped 10 percent, twice the average increases of other transit systems around the country, according to figures released this week by the Port Authority. On average, 249,000 people use the 24-hour trains daily that run from Newark to midtown Manhattan and the World Trade Center, with stops in Journal Square, Grove Street, Newport, Exchange Place and Hoboken.

The figures represent the highest six-month total since the Port Authority took control from the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad in 1962.

Every three minutes

“There’s not a whole heck of a lot we can do,” said PATH spokesman Steve Coleman last week. “We only have two tunnels, and we can only run so many trains so close together.” At rush hour, from 7:30 a.m. to 9 a.m., trains run every three minutes.

That said, PATH is looking to buy several hundred more trains and will be adjusting schedules. PATH is considering extending rush hour service from 7 until 9:30.

An announcement on schedule changes may come in the next week or two, Coleman said.

But another schedule change has originated from commuters.

“I think you’re seeing the peak period spreading out,” Coleman said. “You’re seeing rush hour levels of traffic at five and six” in the morning. “I get to the World Trade Center at seven,” he said, “And the people pulling off the PATH train…you wouldn’t believe.”

At Pavonia/Newport, the number of riders jumped 14.9 percent, from 1.65 to 1.9 million. It’s the second highest hike next to 33rd Street in Manhattan.

“It’s really good, but it’s too crowded,” said Kimberly Grant, 34. “Way too crowded. Especially with all the development in Jersey City and Hoboken.” The information technology consultant lives in Avalon Cove and commutes from Newport to 33rd Street, then takes the subway into the 50s. She missed a full train headed for 33rd Street, and wondered how the system would sustain more people.

A good question, considering that Newport, which will be welcoming Chase Manhattan – among others to its prime waterfront real estate – plans to add nearly 4,000 new apartments and 41,000 square feet of office space to its Northeast Quadrant, a 31-acre swath just east of Washington Blvd.

Calls to The Lefrak Organization, developers of Newport, were not returned by press time.

How PATH will accommodate these new travelers is unclear. Development Downtown around Grove Street and Exchange Place is also straining the system. The PATH station in Exchange Place saw gains of 14.2 percent in the first half of 2000, a jump of 1.62 to 1.85 million. Morning riders headed for the World Trade Center in the morning have difficulty squeezing on by the time trains reach those two stations.

The New York metropolitan region added about 180,000 jobs last year, the most in the nation, according to a study commissioned by the Port Authority.

The Secaucus Transfer shuffle

Other transit developments in the state may change the shuffle of passengers. A NJ Transit transfer point in Secaucus is scheduled to open in 2002, but if you think the transfer will ease the burdens on the PATH system, don’t think so fast.

“I don’t think Secaucus Transfer is going to reduce PATH ridership,” said NJ Transit spokesman Michael Klufas. “If anything it’s going to supplement it. Look at Jersey City; it’s blowing up.”

Klufas explained that the transfer point would benefit those commuters traveling from, say, Mahwah to New Brunswick. As it stands now, the rider would have to take a NJ Transit train to Hoboken, transfer to the PATH to Exchange Place, take another PATH train to Newark, get off, and take a NJ Transit train to New Brunswick.

The transfer would take that type of rider away from the PATH system, but Klufas said NJ Transit has no statistics on these types of riders. He figured the number would be low.

The pols get involved

Politicians have tried to come to the rescue.

U.S. Congressman and senate hopeful Bob Franks (R-7th Dist.), last year proposed legislation that would establish a fund for multi-state transportation projects that “are essential to the national economy but exceed state and regional financial capacity.”

The so-called “RING” (Regional Investments for National Growth) program has stalled out in Congress. “We have the fastest-growing mass transit system in the country,” said Franks on a recent visit to Jersey City. “There’s only one commuter rail tunnel under the Hudson,” he said, referring to the tunnel that funnels NJ Transit and Amtrak trains into Penn Station. (This is not to be confused with the two PATH tunnels.)

But the Port Authority has done little to improve its infrastructure, say those critical of the system.

“It involves a lot of little things,” said Stephen Dobrow, professor of electrical engineering at Farleigh Dickinson University, “and I’m not sure the Port Authority is able to look at the little things.” The head of the Queens-based Committee for a Better Transit, a commuter advocacy group in the metropolitan area, suggested improving the ancient signal changing system and adding more express cars to alleviate some of the short-term problems. Dobrow’s group had proposed converting one of the Lincoln Tunnel tubes into a train tube. His New Jersey coordinator, Ralph Braskett, refers to PATH as the “stepchild” of the Port Authority. (The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is a self-supporting agency that manages the metropolitan area’s three airports and six interstate bridges and tunnels.)

Braskett said that customer problems and a dire need for new equipment plague the system.

As for tunnels?

“New tunnels are a great fantasy game,” Braskett said. The cost of digging into Manhattan, he said, would run in the billions.

Back in Newport, Gabby Smith is looking forward to her new job in Dayton, N.J., “so I won’t have to deal with these morons,” referring to her fellow commuters.

“I’ve got one more week of this,” she said, and then she’ll enjoy a half-hour door-to-door commute. By car. Another train rolled in.

“Look at it,” said Bruce Davis, as he gazed at a train of sandwiched passengers. “It’s kinda nuts.”


© 2000, Newspaper Media Group