While I was out of town last week, Port Authority David Samson finally took one for the team as he resigned amidst the prolonged fallout over the Fort Lee traffic scandal. While driving across those very same lanes on Sunday night, I laughed about how those few miles of road leading to the George Washington Bridge could create such shockwaves both in New Jersey and on a national scale for politicians with ambitious that, at one point, extended well beyond Trenton.
The national politics are neither here nor there right now. Samson left without saying much more than two sentences: “Over the past months, I have shared with the governor my desire to conclude my service to the PANYNJ. The timing is now right, and I am confident that the governor will put new leadership in place to address the many challenges ahead.” Now, calls for reform are on the table, but will two governors who haven’t expressed much of a willingness to take on transit causes look to improve the Port Authority or simply aim to re-entrench their patrons in positions long known for patronage?
In the aftermath of Samson’s resignation, the Garden State’s governor said he is open to change. “I don’t think there’s any question that structural changes are a possibility,” Cuomo said. “It’s also very complex, because the entire legal and financing mechanism that exists has an asset base that is now a bistate asset base. So it’s much easier said than done.”
On the New York side, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has tried to circumvent the issue by directing state funds toward projects that were ostensibly under the Port Authority purview. Fed up with the pace of work at JFK and Laguardia, Cuomo has tried to reinsert the state in the planning picture. That’s a recipe for short-term progress but not for a long-term structural overhaul.
So where does the PA go from here? It won’t be easy to untangle a 93-year-old governing body that commands the area’s airports, a subway system, one of the largest development sites in the city and various bridges, but it may be worth a try. Here’s WNYC’s Kate Hinds toying with the idea:
At his press conference Friday, Gov. Christie said competing state politics lay at the heart of recent problems with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Citing “a history of conflict between these folks at the Port Authority,” Christie said that the way to resolve the feud between the states was “taking the Hatfields and McCoys and moving them to separate homes. Because they haven’t been able to get along with each other, despite my best efforts, the best efforts of Governor Cuomo, and many of our predecessors.”
What he meant was converting the Port Authority from a bi-state operation into separate state agencies. Until today, Christie has blocked reform at the Port, while staffing it with political appointees who had no transportation experience. But what if he got his way and the authority were to be broken up?
The first task would be to untangle multiple bi-state facilities. The Port Authority oversees the region’s airports and interstate bridges and tunnels, not to mention the PATH trains, World Trade Center redevelopment, and… the ports. Its annual operating budget is $8.2 billion — and it has a ten-year, $27.6 billion capital plan. Transportation experts told TN that unwinding those co-owned assets would be a daunting task that probably should not be undertaken.
As Hinds — along with various regional transit and transportation experts — notes, breaking up the Port Authority is throwing out the baby along with the bathwater. Pointing to various other metropolitan regions with competing authorities, most experts seem to believe the blame lies not in the structure but at the top. “Breaking it up isn’t going to solve the problem,” City College professor Robert Paaswell said. “Managing it better will solve the problem.”
Can this agency be better managed? Can we get to a point where a tit-for-tat doesn’t involve a $1 billion investment at Ground Zero in exchange for a $1 billion PATH airport extension? Can two states with divergent political whims work together competently to improve the region’s transportation infrastructure? The answer has to be yes for the region to grow and Port Authority to succeed, but the current leadership hasn’t inspired much hope yet.