I took perverse pleasure in the breaking stories on the GW Bridge screw-up last fall. They seemed to promise that glaring lights would be aimed at the problem that has been consuming the nationally prominent, first-ever American public authority. Something needed to be done. Maybe this would be the tipping point.
Six months later, there is reason for optimism.
The subject of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey and the utter mess that the 93 year old agency finds itself in has been on my mind for many years; the seeds of the problem were sown quite some time ago. It’s just that by this time the sprouted weeds, not invisible if one were looking, have grown thick to the point of crippling and discrediting a once very creditable institution.
A once sought-after model for other public authorities, one that recovered admirably from the most destructive and tragic foreign attacks on American soil is now associated with political abuse, patronage, vindictiveness, and incompetence and scandal that has been a constant source of headlines since November 2013. But the blame cannot be limited to persons of the Christie Administration who took it upon themselves to play traffic doctor and “study” how to turn a town’s congestion into paralytic pneumonia.
My interest in the subject is easily explained and offered as a disclaimer. Jersey bred and a student of government, I was once an employee. A fair number of former colleagues–smart, dedicated, and weary-from-what-ails-the-agency professionals–are still on duty there. I joined the Port Authority in 1980 and remained for over 25 years. We of a certain age witnessed its rapid change from a vigorous, highly ambitious and self-confident agency, especially when it came to tackling regional economic problems, to being heavily politicized and lacking sufficient resources both to maintain adequate staffing and to meet mounting capital and maintenance requirements.
The foundation is still sound, but major structural repairs are needed and the sooner the better. And not in the way the governor of New Jersey may be thinking.
The Port Authority stopped spinning gold for New York and New Jersey several decades ago. External conditions having to do with the economy, changes in the region’s population and commuter choices, and the demands both of aging infrastructure and of ambitious governors put agency revenues on a downward slope and its capital spending on an uphill path. It faced great challenges, but nothing that couldn’t be managed.
In its colorful history, well documented in James Doig’s Empire on the Hudson, the Port Authority has been far from perfect, but it had served as a model for other states and municipalities searching for ways to manage essential public services. It has been the principal entity to provide New Jersey and New York with a regional framework of public works serving the daily commuter as well as interstate and foreign commerce. With steel, fiber optic cable and the pooling of its revenues for mostly transportation projects, it strengthened and bridged the metropolitan area’s borderless common interest.
Politicians are inclined to see borders as bright dividing lines. Many office holders like to see and use those lines as defensive moats or walls from which to lob obstructions and insults to the other side. Over the years the Port Authority itself has been the target, especially of mayors whose towns host its bothersome facilities. (Rudy Giuliani found nothing to like there and tilted at the agency with borderline animus.) Governors, on the other hand, have known it as a resource.
As recent articles have detailed, and as agency employees have known for years, the precipitous institutional decline in the agency and in the morale of its workers can be pegged to George Pataki’s decisions soon he took office in 1995. He and other conservatives employed a mantra reflecting the Ronald Reagan theme that government is the problem and that the private sector has the solution.
Public employees were denigrated and their jobs eliminated. In their place were private sector contracts. (Consulting, a profession where I now reside, took off in a big way as Federal, State and Municipal agencies were made to hire outsiders who were presumed to be more expert and cheaper than public employees.) Why have a law department when you can hire a law firm? Why have engineers and architects on the payroll when you can hire a name corporation? Perchance, did favoritism ever play a role in privatization? You tell me.
Governor Pataki, as is documented, showed his ideological stripes–and perhaps his indifference–early by naming George Marlin, a failed Conservative Party candidate and portfolio manager as Executive Director in charge of an agency with close to 10,000 employees. Governor Christie Whitman objected, but ultimately went along with the appointment by exacting some insurance. She got to name the Deputy Executive Director. One can hardly blame her; however it only served to accelerate the regional agency’s decline by starting the bifurcation of the executive offices of the Port Authority and more intimate levels of decision-making through the taut strings that ran back to Trenton and Albany.
Marlin lasted two years; the damage to the agency’s planning capacity and staff morale, among other things, however, was lasting.
Then came the events of 2001, not to forget the bombing of 1993. The emotional hit within the organization was inestimable, starting with the loss of 84 Port Authority civilian and uniformed personnel, including its capable executive director. (How the surviving workers enabled the huge, and financially significant organization immediately to relocate headquarters staff to maintain operations, recover and quickly pivot into heightened, anti-terror security initiatives deserves its own telling.) The toll on agency finances, both in terms of revenue and the costs associated with recovery and the largely political decisions as to how to manage the World Trade Center site was immediate and continues to this day.
Fast forward to today.
While the George Washington Bridge incident is scandalous, it is not a Port Authority scandal. It is a New Jersey Governor’s Office scandal. Fundamentally, it also is a New York governor’s and Board of Commissioners’ scandal.
It is not the result of Port Authority professionals run amok. It is the consequence of one governor after another, Democrat and Republican, drawing an ever deeper red line and effectively saying, “my commissioners and I will do what we want to do on my side of the line.” Regardless of cost. Regardless of whether it is a credible Port Authority mission or within the long-established geographic scope of the Port District. A rail extension in the Meadowlands. An airport in Atlantic City. A crumbling Skyway. A substitute for a bankrupt state transportation trust fund. And that’s just in New Jersey.
This is a good time to mention something that isn’t being said enough. Nothing of any political or economic consequence is decided at a high level in the Port Authority without the implied or direct consent of the governors or through their proxies at the Port Authority or in the governors’ offices. If it had to do with something on the New Jersey side, it was allowed or caused by a Christie, a Corzine, a McGreevey. If a project was approved in New York, it was okayed by a Cuomo, a Spitzer, a Paterson. If a press release was written, well… So it can be very misleading when a major action—and this is not intended as a reference to Bridgegate—is described as “the Port Authority” did something or decided another. This is deliciously illustrated by the most recent and messy toll hike, the details of which I will leave to The Record.
By their actions a good many governors dismissed the formative notion that an independent public authority is needed to foster and serve the bistate common interest. They strayed from the classic boardroom model and the thoughtfully limited, statutorily set, gubernatorial power to veto board actions. They enjoyed the privilege of political patronage. Patronage may have had its start with George Pataki and Christie Whitman, but what succeeding governor didn’t want to put his own people in nicely salaried jobs, even if those jobs had to be created? The genie was let out of the bottle.
David Wildstein may be an extreme illustration of what can result from doling out patronage and power. We shouldn’t assume it is limited to him and others appointed by Governor Christie but let’s keep the spotlight there for a moment. By all telling in recent years Wildstein was a noxious, destabilizing presence that employees and persons outside the agency found threatening, which is as he wanted. Wildstein and Bill Baroni—himself, notorious for his performance before a US Senate committee—were two of perhaps several persons who were placed in positions of authority and did real damage. Whatever legitimate accomplishments they might have achieved along the way, they bruised and helped bring about early ends to the careers of responsible professionals at the agency.
As it happens, some of those Christie people now find themselves at the curb—fired or resigned. Some facing litigation. Some saving face.
Governor Christie suggests maybe it’s time to split up the agency. But that would only finish the bifurcation of the agency. It also would complete the corruption of the original intent to establish a public authority that plans, builds and invests in public works with a little separation from the election-oriented office holders. If we have learned anything it is that the recent revelations point to the need for just that kind of separation.
Instead of splitting the baby, Governor Christie and the inscrutably silent Governor Andrew Cuomo should take to heart the views of Professor Jameson Doig, RPA chief Robert Yaro, and former Port Authority executives Peter Goldmark, Dick Leone, Martin Robins, among other experienced and thoughtful persons. They should also listen to Chuck Schumer. Yes, that Chuck Schumer.
A panel recently was formed by the current Board of Commissioners to explore reform ideas. In a speech on April 28th, the Senator invited the Port Authority leadership to consider his proposed reforms and come up with any additional ones for consideration in Congress, where the Port Authority Compact was first approved in 1921.
In his “seven point plan” are guidelines for the selection and responsibilities of the Port Authority commissioners and executive director, who should have “full managerial authority and responsibility for “the entire Port Authority organization.”
That very basic reform can get at the root of the problem, but it wouldn’t get at the problem of whether a bad or indifferent governor is in office. That’s a problem for the electorate. But it can help return the Port Authority to having leadership that has “a fiduciary duty” to the agency and full managerial responsibility. Maybe it even will be possible to stuff that patronage genie back into the bottle.
And that is why I was happy to hear how traffic came to a standstill in Fort Lee. Pbea