It is hard to believe now but in the decades following its creation in 1921, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was considered a prime example of an effective and efficient public agency that truly operated in the public interest.
That reputation has been sullied in recent years and not just by the Bridgegate lane-closing scandal and the ensuing criminal convictions of some of those involved. There is also former Port Authority chairman David Samson, who was convicted of misusing his position to shake down United Airlines so that it would reinstate direct flights from Newark to his weekend home. On a broader scale are revelations of how New Jersey Governor Chris Christie used the agency’s resources to reward political allies, while tolls at Port Authority crossings and fares hikes on PATH trains have been repeatedly hiked.
Robert Hennelly describes the agency’s fall from grace in “Beyond Bridgegate: How to Pull the Partisan Politics Out of the Port Authority,” published December 12 on City and State, an online news magazine focused on New York
Hennelly describes a Port Authority in its heyday that does not at all resemble the political patronage pit and goody bag into which it has devolved.
“Its successful and nearly simultaneous completion of no fewer than four bridges in the late 1920s and early 1930s (the Goethals Bridge, the Outerbridge Crossing, the Bayonne Bridge and the George Washington Bridge) all ahead of schedule and well under budget, established the agency’s reputation for avoiding the pitfalls of petty partisan politics,” writes Hennelly. “The Port Authority was a shining example to a nation in need of a can-do spirit, an agency whose utility was demonstrated with every trip over one of its bridges or through one of its tunnels.”
Hennelly asks the crucial question: “So what changed in the almost century-long arc of the Port Authority that it went from transcending partisan politics to being a tool of it, to the point that it was involved in criminality that preyed on the very public it was supposed to serve?”
The problems began well before Bridgegate as the agency’s “early ability to complete projects ahead of schedule and below cost estimates had become a distant memory” and worsened in the aftermath of Sept. 11, as cost overruns on the new World Trade Center complex sank the agency deeper into debt, according to Hennelly.
He cites a report finding that in just 10 years, that debt spiked form $9 billion to $21 billion, a development that coincided with the agency boosting gross compensation for its own workforce by 19 percent in just five years. Today, the average Port Authority employee makes more than $143,000 in salary and benefits, Hennelly reports.
Hennelly quotes historian Jameson Doig, who points fingers, not just at Christie but also at New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and at former New York Governor George Pataki for appointing as executive director George Marlin, who Doig claims undermined the agency in various ways, including demolishing the planning staff.
One suggested fix for the situation is a more diverse board.
As Baruch College professor Doug Muzzio told Hennelly: “What you have is all white guys in real estate, the law or money management. This has created a very insular worldview. Where’s the representation of the New York or New Jersey commuter? You just need more voices.”
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