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Editorial: Port Authority audit turnaround is curious

Cars wait to pay at the George Washington

Cars wait to pay at the George Washington Bridge toll plaza. Cash tolls during peak traffic went from $8 to $12 to cross from New Jersey to New York. (Sept. 18, 2011) Credit: North Jersey Media Group

Early this year, auditors called in by New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie completed a withering preliminary review of the Port Authority, calling the 91-year-old bureaucratic behemoth "challenged and dysfunctional."

Few people who use the George Washington Bridge or LaGuardia Airport or the Holland Tunnel or the seaports would disagree: The authority's aging transportation infrastructure needs work. Now.

The preliminary review followed steep Port Authority toll hikes for the George Washington Bridge and Lincoln and Holland tunnels that have drivers incensed.

The peak-hour price for the agency's Hudson crossings is now $12 in cash -- 50 percent higher than before -- and $9.50 with E-ZPass. That's not the worst of it. In December the nondiscounted toll is scheduled to hit $13 ($10.25 with E-ZPass), and by 2015, it is projected to reach $15 ($12.50 with E-ZPass).

Why such a nasty bite at a time when most drivers can least afford it? The auditors in January found that the authority had been suffering from a lack of consistent leadership, a "siloed" underlying bureaucracy, poorly coordinated capital planning, insufficient cost controls and ineffective oversight of the vast World Trade Center construction program.

The idea was that mismanagement and inconsistency had played key roles as the authority wrestled with recession-diminished revenues and infrastructure properties that were getting creaky.

But now comes the Phase II report from the auditors at Navigant and Rothschild Inc. -- released Sept. 19 -- and suddenly the Port Authority is cast in a far more flattering light. The new report mutes the mismanagement talk.

With revitalized leadership, use of key operating principles, thoughtful corporate governance and organizational changes, the Phase II report proclaims, meaningful improvements are under way and the toll hikes -- necessary to keep the authority's transportation infrastructure in a state of good repair -- should go forward.

Two points about this:

The toll hikes are crucial. The authority has borrowed billions for reconstruction of the World Trade Center while revenue from tolls and fees faded as the Great Recession deepened. The agency had no choice about the WTC -- one of the largest and most complex projects in the world. The attacks on 9/11 claimed nearly 3,000 lives and destroyed 14 million square feet of lower Manhattan office space. The WTC had to be rebuilt. But an unfortunate side-effect of that task has been an agency less focused on its core transportation mission and more focused on real estate. That trend must be reversed, and it can't happen without more revenue.

But really, auditors, in just a few months, this basket case of an agency is now on a righteous path toward functionality? Sure it has made incremental improvements since Patrick Foye became executive director in November. But there are strong reasons to doubt that fundamental change is sweeping through the organization at hurricane speed. Dysfunction is hard-wired in. The authority answers to two masters, the governor of New York and the governor of New Jersey. Different constituencies mean different agendas. A few months of tinkering won't fix that.


Ending the dysfunction would require extraordinary cooperation between the governors year in, year out -- not to mention a refusal to use the agency as a patronage pit, and constant vigilance against waste and mission drift.

A cynic might wonder if Cuomo and Christie wanted to exaggerate the Port Authority's sins under prior management to augment their own claims of a miraculous cleanup as they braced for painful toll hikes. It sure looks that way, but never mind. The best way to evaluate Cuomo and Christie is to see how well and how quickly the authority, on their watch, gets its transportation assets into a state of good repair.


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