Home PANYNJ What future the Port Authority?

What future the Port Authority?

by Benjamin Kabak

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.

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Larry Greenfield April 1, 2014 - 7:36 am

Obviously, it’s time for both states to jointly revisit the PA’s mission and decide what to do. If that can be done, then there’s hope to revise the PA structurally. But, instead of wondering what to do about managing it as it exists, or wondering how to account for its assets, the states have to agree on its mission and the public has to buy in. Then there’s the key relationship with the MTA and any equivalent NJ transportation agencies/entities.
The condition of the region’s transportation infrastructure and the imbalance between the states in funding it demonstrates the need for change. Look at the money spent on the all-marble New York City PATH station compared to a typical NYCT subway station and the imbalance is clear. Look at the condition of Newark airport compared to LGA or JFK and the imbalance is clear. Transit access to airports also demonstrates the imbalance. Then there’s Penn Station. Need I say more?

Larry Littlefield April 1, 2014 - 7:49 am

The past issue with the Port Authority is that the toll surpluses and excess airport revenues have been a political honey pot that governors could spread around without having to ask residents of their state to pay for things. To control the flow of honey, the agency has become staffed at the top with hacks — which the real staff has to hate.

For much of its history, New Jersey has gotten most of the honey, an issue raised by the Giuliani Administration in the 1990s. Lots of unionized Port Authority employees are also paid a lot more/are less productive than those doing similar work in other public agencies, notable on the PATH. More recently, most of it has gone to rebuild the WTC — a former honey source but a drag for the next 30 years until the bonds are paid off — after 9/11, which NJ resents.

The future issue is this. They haven’t just taken the past honey. They have taken the future honey, through debt. So much so that the Port Authority’s ability to do the basics — run the airports and port — has been compromised. The Port Authority bus terminal has become a pit, NY’s airports are low raided despite all the money borrowed against for the passenger facility charge.

Moreover, with Vehicle Miles Traveled no longer going up and all the airlines having gone broke, the bridges and tunnels and airports may not generate the same surpluses in the future. Yet that massive debt has to be paid.

What Christie seems to be saying is that all the money has been sucked out the PA, and lets dump it on someone else. Who?

John-2 April 1, 2014 - 9:11 am

My guess is he’d love to do a 50-50 split on the tolls, let each state take its own port revenues (since the bigger fees are on the Jersey side of the Harbor) along with its own airport revenues/costs, and stick New York with the bond repayments on WTC v2.0. If New York was willing to revive the Brooklyn waterfront as a deepwater port for the next generation of freighters and tankers that will be using the expanded Panama Canal, it really might not be that bad a deal, long-term, since the topography of the Upper Bay makes the deeper areas off Brooklyn a far more viable port option for those ships than Bayonne or Elizabeth.

But as far as PATH goes, that would be one where if the New Jersey side of the PA was willing to either take it over or turn it over to the MTA, there would have to be a lot of subsidy negotiations (but not impossible, since the MTA already deals with New Jersey and with Connecticut on running the Port Jervis service and the NHRR commuter trains).

Larry Littlefield April 1, 2014 - 9:33 am

The Port loses money. The toll surplus used to be enough to support the PATH deficit and the Port Authority Bus Terminal, but then it wasn’t. Airport and WTC money was used instead, to keep tolls and fares lower in NJ than in NY.

You have the WTC, the Bus Terminal and the Port that used to break even or make money and now lose money. Privatize to save money? Already done. The Port Authority employs almost no one that directly provides services, except on the PATH.

From the 2012 Census of Governments public employment data, from which a full compilation is now up on my website:



TOTAL 7,047
Highways 883
Air Transportation 992
Water Transportation 170
Transit 1,202
Other & Unallocable 3,800

Except PATH and the “Other and Unallcoable” PA employees are now a small share of total employment. For example, the WTC itself was privatized. So is most of the airport management.

Tower18 April 1, 2014 - 1:05 pm

The problem with Brooklyn remains the same as always though: so you offload there. Then what? It’s only useful for cargo bound for Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island. Cargo headed in a northerly direction would be better served by NJ, and cargo headed in a northeasterly direction would be better served by NJ or Boston (or Providence maybe). Cargo headed west is a resounding NJ win.

Without a cross-harbor rail connection, Red Hook’s usefulness is limited vs. Elizabeth.

Spendmor Wastemor April 1, 2014 - 1:40 pm

Yep, politics in action.

Corrupt voters get more corrupt government.

John T April 1, 2014 - 7:58 am

Break it apart starting with state-specific sections like the airports. Add free transfer between the PATH & subways, future would be to unify them into the system like they should have been years ago.

It should focus on true interstate aspects like the port, bridges & tunnels.

Good luck!

Michael K April 1, 2014 - 8:57 am

so mass transit is not interstate? (I think NJTA, PANYNJ, NJT, MTA, NYS DOT, NYC DOT & NJDOT should be rolled up into a tri state dot so regional transportation can be actually provided.

LLQBTT April 1, 2014 - 9:02 am

I saw a report on Channel 2 that said Christie diverted ARC $ to the Pulaski Skyway rebuild. And that he did so to fulfill his pledge of no gas tax increase. He denied it, but as we all know here, Christie did indeed do this.

At least this is now getting mainstream media coverage.

There’s blood in the water, so let the feeding frenzy begin!

Bolwerk April 1, 2014 - 10:22 am

Until something concrete comes out pinning it on Christie, the bridge scandal is a boring provincial controversy, sorry. Christie probably was smart enough to give himself plausible deniability, even if he did order it. The middlebrow commentator class discovered too late what most people who paid attention knew all along: Christie is erratic, chauvinist, petty, and thin-skinned. It’s like the 2004 election again, when the same people learned a little too late that the George W. Bush Administration was, to steal a phrase I saw on a blog post elsewhere and love, Dunning-Krugger-ed to the hilt.

But forget reform. Expecting Chris Christie and and Andrew Cuomo to reform the PA is sort of like expecting Shiro Ishii and Josef Mengele to reform medical practices. It’s well and good that the PA should be structurally reformed, but the wolves should be retired to the countryside when it happens if it’s going to be done right.

Really, unless at least one of the governors has a don’t-evil-epiphany, or one or both state legislatures become fiercely pro-transit, I don’t see any reform forthcoming in anything transpo-related anywhere in either state.

Chris C April 1, 2014 - 12:48 pm

Perhaps there is some merit at looking at the various items of PA infrastructure and if possible returning them to the full control of their ‘home’ states – the airports come to mind as a starter. The three major London airports are operated by three separate private companies (after the previous owner was forced to divest itself of two of them) which puts an element of competition between them.

Leave only the real bi-state items with the PA.

There might need to be some transitional financing in the short to medium term from the PA but that should not be insurmountable.

Reform the PA so that political affiliations play no part in hiring decisions – permanent staff should be employed for their professional expertise not based which state they come from or which party they support. They should be told they work for the PA as a whole not their home state Governor.

The PA Board can start by being more open with members having a financial interest being excluded from decisions where they have even the smallest possible conflict.

Appoint members that have a real expertise in issues such as finance, engineering, governance and planning.

And define who the PA is accountable too. Is it the 2 Governors? the State legislatures? Possibly even remove the right of either of the Governors to veto PA decisions.

Aaron Priven April 1, 2014 - 12:54 pm

Better to do a 50-50 split of New Jersey, giving half to Pennsylvania and half to New York. Then the PA can be a New York state agency.

Larry Greenfield April 2, 2014 - 2:35 pm

Eliminating New Jersey presents a constitutional issue; what would become of New Jersey’s two senators?

g8 April 1, 2014 - 1:48 pm

Step one is to sell off all the real estate and “economic development” projects that are completely non-transportation related:

See http://www.panynj.gov/real-est.....eport.html, etc..

Rob April 1, 2014 - 2:44 pm

Re “Can we get to a point where a tit-for-tat doesn’t involve..”: Is anything else in NYC area, public infrastructure wise, managed any better? I’m thinking of LGA access [or not], E Side Access, Fulton Transit Ctr, arc, etc.

And the mta could have routed some MN trains into Penn decades ago if it had the will to do so, and even through routed into NJ.

Beebo April 1, 2014 - 8:46 pm

It’s a political honey pot now as bistate agency; it will be TWO honey pots when split up. Let’s step back. These guys run the port (duh), real estate (WTC & Battery City Park) and transit (airports, PATH, bridges and tunnels.)

Breaking it up three ways makes more sense than creating two equivalent boon-doggles. PATH might make more sense in the hands of a rapid transit agency. E.g., NJT. Bridges and tunnels belong together insofar as its vehicular infrastructure.

Phantom April 2, 2014 - 7:03 pm

After NJ Transit’s Sandy and Super Bowl performances, let’s not trust them with any new responsibilities. The rail operation is over its head as it is.

Beebo April 2, 2014 - 7:11 pm

Maybe so. But getting the MTA to run PATH sounds politically difficult.


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