Last fall's George Washington Bridge traffic scandal focused attention on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The mammoth agency has a $2.6-billion annual budget, scores of political appointees and a reputation for inefficiency and dysfunction.
Goldmark: Make Port Authority an economic engine again
There are two distinct changes New York and New Jersey state officials must implement to improve the efficiency -- and fulfill the promise -- of the Port Authority.
- Stop political abuse by either state and sweep out unqualified patronage appointees.
- Restructure the Port Authority to become once again a powerful, professionally run engine of capital investment and economic growth for the country's largest metropolitan region, from modern transportation facilities to a smart electric grid.
To prevent abuse of power, the agency must embrace regular outside reviews so the board and the staff designated by the governors of New York and New Jersey act in the best interests of the region, not in the best interests of statehouse politics. The agency is bursting with patronage appointments. It began to split its senior management into separate New Jersey and New York chains of command two decades ago, which made possible the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal now under investigation.
The agency should consider three potential avenues of outside review to shore up confidence that it's managing assets and investing responsibly. The reviews would be conducted by:
- The New York State comptroller's office: It's an elective office -- independent of the governor -- that has shown it can perform professional audits of Port Authority activities. (New Jersey's comptroller is appointed by the governor.)
- The federal Government Accountability Office: This agency undertakes quality, independent analyses. With minor changes to its mission, it could be authorized to review the operations of the Port Authority, which was created by federal legislation.
- Nonpartisan groups: The authority could commission a review of its practices by independent groups such as the Citizens Budget Commission or Citizens Union. The scrutiny would help the agency transition from its stagnation and impotence.
The second and more difficult change will not happen as a result of external oversight. It's vital for the authority to resume its role as a regional engine of economic growth. That would require leadership by both New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, if he survives allegations made Friday that he knew about the lane closures.
The leadership of the authority itself, the board of commissioners and the executive director, should play a major role in revamping the agency.
The board and the executive director should announce that they will not honor requests by either state to fund routine maintenance or repair projects normally financed by the two states, and that they will not engage in financial high jinks designed to transfer agency money to the state budgets.
The greatest contribution Christie and Cuomo can make to our economic recovery is to allow the agency to invest in large-scale public projects that contribute to regional growth, create jobs, and increase competitiveness and transportation efficiency. The authority should present a long-term plan to Christie and Cuomo to do that.
The board and the executive director also must return the agency to a single, professional chain of command and decide that it will accept no patronage appointees from the two states.
If the board finds such a position too taxing, the executive director, as chief executive, could announce he will institute the changes on his own, and restore the agency as an independent organization serving the region, as foreseen by the original Port Compact of 1921.
It would be instructive to see if he gets fired for that.
Peter Goldmark, a former budget director of New York State, served as executive director of the Port Authority (1977 to 1985). He is a former publisher of the International Herald Tribune and headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund.
Marlin: Get the Port Authority back to basics
The repeated claim by Port Authority bureaucrats over the years that the agency is removed from the political environment and exercises the best scientific management theories is nonsense.
Because the ultimate overseers of the bi-state agency created in 1921 are the governors of New York and New Jersey, the authority will always be managed by their political allies. However, that does not mean the authority's practices and policies cannot be reformed or improved.
For several months, the Port Authority has been embroiled in scandal amid allegations that a top authority appointee of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie abused the power of his office to create traffic havoc on the George Washington Bridge to punish a political foe -- and that Christie knew more than he has acknowledged. A federal investigation is underway, and a spotlight has been cast on the agency's operations.
One glaring shortcoming at the agency that can be eliminated with the stroke of a pen is the Port Authority's Regional Economic Development Program -- also known by authority insiders as "The Bank." Established along with the 1984 toll hike, The Bank funded some $400 million in pet projects on either side of the Hudson River.
This fund, which has been replenished after each toll hike, has been a reward to governors for not objecting to toll increases.
Abolishing the program would send a strong message that the governors are serious about reforming the agency.
The Port Authority lost its way in the 1980s and early 1990s when its mission was redefined as a regional economic engine instead of a brain trust for transportation policy. Authority officials, who did not understand market forces, funded countless economic initiatives that failed, including the Brooklyn Fishport fishing complex; industrial parks in Bathgate, Yonkers and Elizabeth; a World Trade Institute that included a language school; and a downtown hotel.
Fortunately, some of those economic projects were sold or closed during my tenure as executive director -- and others the authority has been saddled with for decades are being unloaded. Its Essex County Resource Recovery Facility was sold last year; the Newark Legal Center is being sold; and the Teleport office park on Staten Island is on the market.
For the authority to get back on track, it must recommit to its core mission -- transportation -- and examine all its undertakings and projects to determine whether they are germane to the agency's mission. Financial resources should be shifted from headquarters staff to line department operations -- aviation, port commerce and transportation. And an aggressive capital program to overhaul its aging infrastructure should move ahead.
Some of this is already in the making: About $5 billion in investments have been committed to rehabilitating Kennedy and LaGuardia airports. More than $2.6 billion is being dedicated to fix the infrastructure of the George Washington and Bayonne bridges. And plans to build a new Goethals Bridge are underway.
If the Port Authority gets back to basics and efficiently meets the critical transportation needs of the region, the public will be the winner. But that will require two governors to stop using the agency as a bank to fund their pet projects.
George J. Marlin, a former executive director of the Port Authority (1995-1997), is a director of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority.
Doig: How the Port Authority became broken
During the early 20th Century, New York and New Jersey engaged in intermittent conflict over freight movement between the two states and other issues affecting regional transportation and economic development. Seeking to improve interstate cooperation and to aid the movement of goods and people across the metropolis, the states' governors and legislators agreed in 1921 to create the Port of New York Authority.
The bi-state agency was designed to insulate its staff from patronage and political pressures, while they carried out complex planning and engineering projects. The governors appointed a board of commissioners to guide career staff and to protect them from mayors and state officials trying to bend the agency's efforts to meet narrow political concerns.
For 50 years, the authority (later renamed the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey) succeeded in knitting together the region's transportation systems. It constructed the George Washington Bridge and three spans connecting Staten Island to New Jersey, plus the Lincoln Tunnel, and took control of the Holland Tunnel and three major airports, among other properties.
Until the 1970s, the authority's leadership was shared, with the chairman and vice chairman rotating between the states. The pattern was broken in the late 1970s, when New York Gov. Hugh Carey insisted on naming an executive director from outside the career staff; in return, New Jersey's governor would name the agency's chairman. Soon after, the authority began to work with cities in the region on local economic-development projects. That effort led to demands by local and state officials that the agency allocate funds to projects that would help their political interests, even if the projects were outside the agency's mandate (to improve transportation), and so authority money went into building the Newark Legal Center office tower and buying a portion of Aqueduct Racetrack.
In the 1990s, tensions over Gov. George Pataki's choice for executive director led New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman to demand that she name a deputy executive director; that began a tradition of divided leadership at the top and disrupted agency activities when the deputy claimed loyalty to the appointing governor.
When Chris Christie became New Jersey governor in 2010, he inserted more than 50 political allies into the career staff at the authority, undermining the ability of agency leaders to carry out plans if they did not meet Christie's short-term goals.
One of those appointees, David Wildstein, disrupted traffic at the George Washington Bridge this past September, allegedly to attack a mayor who did not endorse Christie's re-election. (Wildstein has declined to testify on the events, but said on Friday that Christie knew about the lane closures that led to the disruption and that his administration ordered it.)
Still, the authority continues to get things done -- a new Goethals Bridge is being built; terminals at LaGuardia and Kennedy airports are being replaced; and the bridges and tunnels are being repaired.
Even so, the intrusive actions taken by Christie and his minions -- plus an apparently passive attitude by New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo toward the eroding of independence at an agency -- have hurt staff morale and reduced the authority's ability to attract and retain the best planners and engineers.
The governors need to agree that the authority is too important to the region to be treated as a patronage sump and honey pot whose funds can be diverted to meet short-term political goals. And commissioners who would do whatever the appointing governor demands need to be replaced by commissioners with greater loyalty to the region.
Jameson W. Doig, Professor Emeritus, Princeton University and Research Professor in Government, Dartmouth College; author of Empire on the Hudson, a history of the Port Authority.