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Op-Ed: Governors can re-energize the Port Authority

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and New York

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, seen together at the Port Authority's World Trade Center in 2011, should work together to restore professionalism to the agency. Credit: AP/Charles Dharapak

Months of raw partisan politics, comical mismanagement, conflicts of interest and resignations at the Port Authority have left the public outraged and confused.

But despite a naive attempt by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to wriggle out of the frying pan with a homegrown internal review, the drama of the George Washington Bridge lane closures and the conflicts and shenanigans it exposed won't be over until federal and state investigations are concluded.

We've all spent months learning about nonperformance and political interference at the authority, without a word from Govs. Christie or Andrew M. Cuomo about fixing it. But last week they raised the possibility of breaking up the agency into two state-based operations.

If Christie and Cuomo think there is a solid case for that course, they should lay it out in terms of jobs, investment, improved transportation and economic growth for the region. A key question is how they would untangle a $2.6-billion-a-year bi-state agency whose operations, cash flow and assets stand behind a series of long-term bonds.

Given the constraints on the capital capacity of the agency and its past success, the burden of proof is on them. In the meantime, what's important is to start a serious discussion about how to fix the authority.

For nine decades, the authority has been critical in meeting the metropolitan region's infrastructure needs, becoming a key regional asset that often led the way on transportation projects nationally. While sometimes sluggish about transparency and unresponsive to the public, it was generally insulated from short-term political whims in New York and New Jersey and could take on long-term capital projects that benefitted the metro region.

The reality is that nothing serious happens at the Port Authority unless the governors permit it. But in addition to the governors' commitment to rebuild the agency, we need a team of nonpartisan civic leaders to serve as commissioners, a strong, experienced executive director, and vigilance from the public and the media.

Clubhouse politics has to be rooted out if the agency is to competently manage capital investments. Some have noted that you can't get "all politics" out of the authority. In a sense, that is right; the authority was created by two state legislatures and Congress, and is overseen by two governors. But we shouldn't settle for the kind of Tammany Hall politics in which the governors divide the authority into New York and New Jersey branches through patronage appointments of the kind that led to the bridge lane closures last summer.

The board of commissioners and agency staff need to serve impartially the broad priorities of the region, not the governors' partisan agendas. That could be accomplished by legislation requiring that the authority's board be balanced politically to neutralize one-party high-jinks, and by tough conflict-of-interest rules under which the authority could not do any business, at any time, with any firm with whom a commissioner has a business or personal connection.

The commissioners and the two governors should publicly state that the authority will not be used to fill potholes in the states' budgets. Christie had the agency pay for maintaining New Jersey highways and New York diverted funds to plug budget shortfalls. The authority's capital capacity and expertise should be used for designing, financing and implementing large projects -- something both states desperately need.

Reform is essential; but it starts and ends with the two governors.

Peter Goldmark is a former executive director of the Port Authority (1977-1985) and Richard C. Leone is a former chairman (1989-1994).

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