As the debate over the future of the Port Authority has roiled the region, local politicians have resisted putting forward calls for reform. Gov. Chris Christie a few weeks ago even warned of going “too far” with calls to overhaul the bi-state agency. That’s a laughable position coming from the Jersey side of the river, but it’s ultimately not one likely to win the day. Reform will come, one way or another, even if it takes a few years.
Yesterday, Chuck Schumer, New York’s senior senator, chimed in on the issue and offered up his seven-point plan to reform Port Authority. The speech is available on Schumer’s website, and he ultimately called for the PA to get back to its roots. “The Port Authority, in an era of growth and imagination, was hewed, indivisibly, to its core mission: improving the Port District and thinking deeply about its long-term infrastructure needs,” Schumer said. “Over the past several decades, the fabric binding the Port Authority to that core mission has frayed, slowly unwinding as states saw an opportunity to use authority funds to cover budget shortfalls and finance pet projects. More frequently now than ever, the Port Authority has come to be seen as the proverbial honey pot, a cookie jar, a rainy day fund – whatever metaphor you prefer – for state projects outside the Port’s core mission.”
In the speech, Schumer offered an olive branch to the Port Authority. He would see through legislative changes the PA needs to effect reform if the agency asks. Here’s his seven-point plan:
First, the Port Authority should come back with a process for the nomination and confirmation of an Executive Director by the Board of Commissioners, not by the Governor of one state or the other. Second, the Port Authority should propose administrative changes vesting full managerial authority and responsibility of the entire Port Authority organization with the Executive Director. Third, the Port Authority should establish a permanent process to nominate individuals as Commissioners to the Port Authority who possess a comprehensive financial, engineering and planning background, and no conflicts of interest related to the Port Authority’s core mission. It should be clear that these commissioners have a fiduciary duty to the Port Authority
Fourth, the Port Authority should submit procedures that will allow the Port Authority to have a detailed annual operating budget and a multi-year financial plan that can be adopted after opportunities for public review and comment. Fifth, they should establish procedures that will allow the Port Authority’s capital budgeting to be guided by a long-term capital strategy that is regularly revised – I suggest at least annually. This plan should show how the Port is prioritizing and financing projects, and only then should it be adopted after opportunities for public review and comment.
Sixth, the members of the board should submit a plan to end spending on non-revenue generating state projects that are outside the core mission. Seventh, the Port Authority should end the acquisition of new non-revenue generating facilities and projects outside the boundaries of the Port District that are not core to the Port Authority’s central mission.
Much of Schumer’s speech is targeted toward Christie’s pet projects — the Atlantic City Airport plans come to mind. But Schumer also issued his own call for a Stewart Airport rail link, a long-standing desire that I dismissed as early as August of 2007. He also discusses the long-awaited Cross Harbor Freight Tunnel, a rail project that would create problems for the Triboro RX line. These are, Schumer argues, “just the kind of project that the early Port Authority leaders would embark upon.”
There was, however, one part of the speech I thought worth a second look. Although it’s been a while, Schumer spoke about the ARC Tunnel as well. He has not held back in his criticism of Christie’s controversial decision to cancel the tunnel and again spoke out against the move. “Diverting funds from the ARC tunnel for the Pulaski Skyway was the wrong move,” Schumer said. “The ARC tunnel was a high-priority and already fully funded. It was a bad idea to stop it and a worse idea to cannibalize it for projects that ought to have been funded by the New Jersey Department of Transportation, perhaps even with some help from federal highway dollars. The Port Authority should have pressed forward on ARC. As I said then, ‘It was like eating our seed corn.'”
Originally, the Port Authority had pledged $3 billion to the ARC Tunnel, and New Jersey had to pick up the rest of the money that didn’t come from the feds. This gave Christie the power to cancel the project, and as soon he could, he gave it the axe. While I understand the funding structure, I never could comprehend the insular nature of Christie’s decision. ARC wasn’t just a one-state project. It had an affect on New Jersey and New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Maryland, and the entire Northeast Corridor. Anyone riding the Acela, the Empire and Keystone Services, the Crescent, the Vermonter and everything in between would have enjoyed the benefits of ARC, but Christie himself made the decision to kill it.
Going forward, we don’t know what the Port Authority will become after Christie and Cuomo are gone. Maybe New York and New Jersey can move beyond tit-for-tat land deals and can restore some luster to the Port Authority. Hopefully, when we do, we can avoid repeating the mistakes of the past and think beyond the provincialism of state borders when major projects are considered, funded and seen through. That would be a strong lasting legacy for anyone looking to reform the Port Authority.