PATH/Fail: The Story of the World’s Most Expensive Train Station

The Port Authority used to set records in good ways.

(Illustration: Stephen Jacob Smith)

The Port Authority used to set records in good ways. The George Washington Bridge was a marvel of engineering in its day, the world’s longest bridge when it was built, and still the busiest. The Port Authority Bus Terminal, opened in 1950, is to this day the largest on earth by passenger volume.

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But today, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey doesn’t brag about the records it sets. One World Trade Center, born the Freedom Tower and taken over by the Port in 2006, will be the most expensive office building in the world. The “Vehicle Security Center,” an underground tour bus garage and road network serving the World Trade Center complex, may very well be the most expensive parking garage in history.

And then there’s the PATH station to New Jersey, the most troubled project at one of the world’s most troubled construction sites. At $3.74 billion, plus another $200 million in contingencies, the “Transportation Hub” at the World Trade Center—not even the busiest station in the Financial District—will be far and away the most expensive train station built in modern history.

The Hub, as it’s known in Port Authority speak, will be the crowning artistic statement of the World Trade Center complex, perhaps the last grand gesture at a site that was supposed to be full of them. “Let me draw for you what I cannot say,” its architect, Santiago Calatrava, said at the unveiling in 2004. Then, wrote Newsweek, “he fluently sketched a child releasing a bird—a spellbinding image that had inspired his design.”

When the grandiose ambitions and the emotions of 9/11 met with the famously flush Port Authority, disaster struck. Mission creep, an inattentive governor and extreme politicization sent costs skyward, eventually outstripping even the record-setting resources devoted to it. Its wings had to be stilled and its supports thickened, the bird in flight devolving into an immobilized stegosaurus. The world’s most expensive train station, it seems, was not expensive enough to contain all of New York’s dreams.

For nearly $4 billion, most cities could build entire subway lines. Even the MTA, which frequently breaks cost records of its own, managed to build its Fulton Center hub, a renovation of five densely tangled lines, for $1.4 billion. Nobody’s subway tunnels cost more than the MTA’s, but even they could fund most of the second phase of the Second Avenue subway, from 96th Street to 125th, with that kind of cash.

The World Trade Center PATH station is actually not a particularly busy one. “No one intelligently could say that the level of design and architecture associated with it was commensurate with the level of usage,” said one former commissioner. (Like nearly everyone we interviewed for this story, he would only speak on the condition of anonymity.)

The Port Authority likes to play up the significance of the station by calling it Manhattan’s third-largest transit hub. That’s a tenuous claim at best. Were the PATH system to be integrated into the New York City subway (no, nearly $4 billion does not buy a free transfer to the subway), the World Trade Center stop would barely crack the top 10 busiest stations.

Once a bird in flight, the Hub has devolved into an immobile, skeletal stegosaurus.
Once a bird in flight, the Hub has devolved into an immobile, skeletal stegosaurus.

With its contribution to the project, which was supposed to cost it virtually nothing, ballooning to nearly $1 billion, the Port Authority now finds itself unable to fund the sorts of regional transportation projects that have traditionally justified its existence.

In 2009, to pay for ballooning World Trade Center costs, the Port cut $5 billion from its 10-year capital plan. That pleased the bond markets temporarily as Moody’s upgraded the Port Authority’s bond rating the next year, only to knock it down again in 2012 due to still-increasing World Trade Center costs and the fear that the Port’s seemingly limitless ability to raise bridge and tunnel tolls may in fact be limited.

From the proposed ARC rail tunnel beneath the Hudson into Midtown (canceled by Chris Christie in 2010) and an extension of the PATH train to Newark Liberty International Airport (at a cost of around $500 million) to a thorough renovation of La Guardia Airport ($1 billion in capital funding was cut in 2009), the region has needs, and the Port Authority is struggling to fund them.

PATH/Fail: The Story of the World’s Most Expensive Train Station