Home PANYNJ Dysfunction mars Port Authority vote as big-ticket items move forward

Dysfunction mars Port Authority vote as big-ticket items move forward

by Benjamin Kabak

The $5.3 billion LaGuardia overhaul moves forward, but the Willets Point Airtrain, seen here, remains a question mark. (Photo via Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office)

Although the MTA often spends money like a drunk sailor ambling from bar to bar, New York’s own agency can’t hold a candle to the Port Authority when it comes to dysfunction and burning dollars. As Gov. Chris Christie continues to check out on the state of New Jersey and Gov. Andrew Cuomo continues to….do whatever it is he does, the Port Authority is reaching new highs, or perhaps lows, in its unconstrained approach to throwing money at every problem.

Last week, while I was out of town, the agency approved spending for a new bus terminal in Manhattan that may cost as much as $12 billion, and the price tag for the Laguardia overhaul went up by another $1 billion. Meanwhile dysfunction ruled the roost at the PA’s Board meeting as its current Executive Director Patrick Foye has been held hostage by the bi-state agency’s inability to find someone else willing to take over the top spot. How to save the Port Authority is a very wide open question.

It’s hard to know where to begin or who to blame for this mess. I would urge you to read Nicole Gelinas’ take on the dysfunction engrained in the culture of the Port Authority. It starts with a bunch of adults arguing over the scope of their powers and ability to approve projects and ends with an indictment of the two governors who don’t care that the return on their investment of over $20 billion in taxpayer money may not amount to much.

Or perhaps you wish to read about internal tensions at the Port Authority that have more or less directly led to the Laguardia renovations increasing in cost from $3.6 billion to $4 billion to $5.3 billion the span of 18 months. This time around, the PA can’t make Santiago Calatrava out to the be whipping boy (and the plan looks no better today than it did when I explored the ins and outs in July). The vote on all of these items — including approval for a new Port Authority bus terminal — last week ultimately passed, and here’s Dana Rubinstein’s take on the great big mess:

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is taking a big vote on the redevelopment of LaGuardia airport on Thursday, and thanks to mounting tensions between the New York and New Jersey sides of the famously fractious bistate agency, no one’s quite sure how it will go.

The authority’s chairman has his doubts about the project. “I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t do LaGuardia, because I think it’s critically important, but I’m not going to support it in the current configuration,” said John Degnan, an appointee of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. It’s not clear precisely what configuration would be acceptable to Degnan, but the rebuild is a centerpiece of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s infrastructure agenda — he has made it the focus of several press conferences, some with Vice President Joe Biden, who famously compared the airport to a Third World facility…

According to the agenda the Port released — and that Degnan, as board chairman, controls — if the plan goes through, the Port will have spent “$5.3 billion in cumulative total investment since 2004” on rethinking, designing and ultimately rebuilding the airport, including things like overhead and consultant fees. “The number looks higher because in the past, the Port Authority has been neither transparent nor candid in what the total cost of this project is,” he said. The issue of LaGuardia’s costs has since become a serious source of friction.

Rubinstein follows the ever-winding tale of Foye’s retention, the inability of New York and New Jersey to agree on Port Authority reform, and the failure of the Port Authority to find anyone foolish enough to take the CEO job that is supposed to unify two halves of a bad marriage. It’s a mess of provincialism dominated by artificial state borders that ends up leaving citizens on both sides of the Hudson out of control.

Is there an escape from this mess? The common refrain on Twitter — disband the Port Authority — doesn’t really get us there because we would then have to replace the Port Authority with something better. Is anything better? Is there a way to run a bi-state agency that doesn’t involve political horse-trading across state and political borders? And how is the Port Authority’s ten-year, $26-billion capital plan getting funded anyway? No one has any ideas, and for that, we suffer. Ultimately, it all makes the MTA look downright competent.

You may also like


LLQBTT March 30, 2016 - 9:00 am

Is it just me, or has this got to a new low from 2 self-proclaimed executive styled governors who in fact just don’t give a sh*t about transport (besides roads) or their constituents? MTA, PANJNY, NJT. It seems the same story over and over, managerial incompetence, feuding, political meddling, negligence.

Jeff March 30, 2016 - 9:08 am

Political dysfunction in government agencies have been around way, way before our esteemed current governors, I’m afraid.

Jeff March 30, 2016 - 9:06 am

Why do airports and a bus terminal serving buses that go all over the country (and to Canada) need to fall under a bi-state agency anyway? Let those go back to being managed by the state they are in and you have a lot less dysfunction and interstate politics.

lawhawk March 30, 2016 - 9:14 am

The airports are a huge revenue source for the PA, so removing them from the PA umbrella would require finding alternative sources of revenue to plug the hole that is PATH. Since 2 of the 3 airports are in NY, NJ would never agree to seeing the airports shifted away from the PA.

The real dysfunction stems from having two governors who absolutely don’t care about anything other than personal aggrandizement and have no interest in mass transit.

For all of Cuomo’s rhetoric about how he wants to be like Robert Moses, Cuomo has done little to actually provide new infrastructure, and his success at the TZB involves lots of smoke and mirrors as that project also doesn’t have a funding stream in place to cover the $3.9 billion cost, and they shaved away the mass transit component because of “costs”.

The Goethals replacement is a 3P plan, and the Bayonne bridge project is now more than a year behind schedule. The PA can barely keep on top of existing infrastructure, and even with the WTC winding down, there’s no money to cover new infrastructure of the kind that they’re talking about. It’ll require higher tolls and PATH fares. There’d be additional airport surcharges to be sure at LGA too. But in the end, both governors see the PA as a piggy bank so they don’t have to make tough decisions to do actual state budgeting on transit in the NYC metro region.

And when that runs into financial constraints they can shrug their shoulders and point at the other (or the PA by and through their proxies) and call it a day.

Meanwhile, commuters and visitors alike suffer through crumbing infrastructure that can’t meet current or expected demands.

Jeff March 30, 2016 - 9:26 am

The PATH would still have all the bridge tolls to pay for it.

Point being that this seems more of a historical arrangement than something that is pragmatic and practical for today. NY and NJ have separate interest and have no incentives to work together politically. So it’s better to just have them each play in their own sandbox as much as possible.

AG March 30, 2016 - 9:56 pm

Wrong – Newark airport counts as NYC airspace. NY and NJ are linked together by geography. Politics is the reason they can’t work together. In reality – northern NJ should have been NY.. But it’s not. Everyone shoudl act like grownups and act in the best interest of the region. It’s the same issue with upstate vs. downstate – Manhattan vesus the outer boroughs… Etc. etc.

Eric F March 30, 2016 - 11:28 am

“The real dysfunction stems from having two governors who absolutely don’t care about anything other than personal aggrandizement and have no interest in mass transit.”

Yet the PA is spending nearly its entire capital budget on non-road projects. They built a $4 billion PATH station and are pouring another 15 billion into a bus terminal and airports. PATH is a subsidy sink. The whole wedding cake rests on outrageous motorist tolls.

Essentially, your premise is completely contradicted by the actual dynamic people of this region are living through.

Eric March 30, 2016 - 6:18 pm

Somehow all those billions spend on transit have almost zero value in terms of transit.

AG March 30, 2016 - 9:53 pm

Air “ports” are a port. You have air ports and sea ports… The bus terminal – I don’t know why. My guess is that it’s because it handles a lot of NY-NJ traffic across the Hudson.

eo March 30, 2016 - 9:12 am

I can tell you how this is all going to play out. Given that Christie is checked out, Cuomo will get the renovation of LaGuardia started. Conveniently after Cuomo has finished his term as governor the cost will raise another $1-2 billion for what is basically a big nice looking warehouse. Eventually the PA will scrap the Path to EWR and begin work on the Bus Terminal. By then the cost of the terminal will be about $20 billion and they will have to jack up the tolls for crossing the Hudson to $20. This will cause so much uproar that the PA will need pull out of Gateway because it does not have the money to pay its share and that project will die as the Feds will never pay for the full thing especially with a republican administration in charge in DC. The new bus terminal will get finished in about 20 years from now and by then one of the tubes of the Lincoln Tunnel will be dedicated to buses only during peak hours 6-10am and 4-8pm because NJTransit cannot run enough trains under the Hudson in a single tunnel while the other one is closed for repair. Commuters will cringe that they need to walk another long block because the new bus terminal was stupidly built further west than the existing one.

smotri March 30, 2016 - 9:49 am

This, along with the MTA in its current wayward trajectory, is going to be a major impediment to people and businesses moving to the metropolitan area, and a major incentive to people and businesses moving away from the metropolitan area. As a native New Yorker who’s lived in four of the five boroughs, Long Island, Westchester, and Jersey City, who’s lived through the darkest days of the subways’ near-collapse, I see no positive trend for the region and its overburdened mass transit systems. I’ve also lived in Paris and Seoul and experienced what a difference coherent, rational and cost effective planning can be.

Eric F March 30, 2016 - 11:31 am

The overburdened and crazily expensive road network is at least as big an impetus to people leaving, or at least wanting to. Wasting a summer day sitting at a bridge approach or having to pay outrageous tolls to cross a river is no fun either.

AG March 30, 2016 - 9:59 pm

Business doesn’t really move to this region – unless it’s very high margin. Business usually grows here and expands out.. That’s been the way for 150 years.

BruceNY March 30, 2016 - 1:23 pm

“Commuters will cringe that they need to walk another long block because the new bus terminal was stupidly built further west than the existing one.”

That’s not a problem, they can simply enter the Subway at 10th Avenue and 41st St. Oh, wait…

eo March 31, 2016 - 11:04 am

That station would not have solved the problem — there are so many bus passengers, you cannot cram them onto a single line even if it is for one stop to Times Square. You need multiple lines to get the people going to their destinations. Back in the days when they built the old terminal they actually knew something about transportation planning which seems to have been lost over time and that is why the existing terminal is where it is.

imogen March 31, 2016 - 1:03 pm

If a stop were to be built at 41st with some PA contribution, it might be feasible to extend the shuttle as well (politically, not sure about technically).

adirondacker12800 March 31, 2016 - 1:39 pm

The Seventh Ave Subway is in the way.

Bruce McCallister March 31, 2016 - 2:14 pm

Not all passengers would use this station. Those that need the 8th Avenue IND will likely choose to walk directly to that station as a transfer from the #7 at Times Sq. would make no sense. Unfortunately for them they will need to walk outside in the rain/snow because the idea of building an underground concourse would probably not occur to the brilliant planners we have today, or would be axed (again) due to cost overruns.
Other passengers walk to their destinations, and a few might even take the #7 in the other direction to Hudson Yards.

Rob March 30, 2016 - 9:55 am

an escape from this mess? YES

and we would NOT have to replace it — no reason for it to control the airports; the states [or NYC] can take their airports, and the bridges and tunnels can be split among them.

No need for a public entity WTC facility. Give PATH to NJT. PABT could be privatized, and perhaps downsized PA could keep the actual port facilities, which is what is what its mission actually was.

smotri March 30, 2016 - 10:06 am

After all, it’s the PORT Authority… What business does it have managing airports and bridges and real estate ventures? Also, what good is it truly to have, for instance, a revamped La Guardia Airport, costing billions, when one still can’t travel to or from it in any convenient manner?

BruceNY March 30, 2016 - 1:25 pm

Thanks to Cuomo’s visionary transport planning, you will be able to access La Guardia very conveniently as long as you live in Willets Point.

AG March 30, 2016 - 10:01 pm

Air ports are ports… Hudson River bridges all affect the seaports… The WTC though should be sold though – and PATH given to MTA.

Eric F March 30, 2016 - 11:37 am

I’m not sure how the PA has an “unconstrained approach to throwing money at every problem”. It manages large facilities that are in dire need of updating. If there is an argument that bus facility does not need to be replaced or can be done much more cheaply, I’m sure the PA would entertain it. The LGA re-build is being pushed by Cuomo. Is the argument that it should be cheaper or that it is unncessary?

The other constant compliant is “the inability of New York and New Jersey to agree on Port Authority reform”.

I’d love to hear an explanation of how this amorphous “reform” will cut costs.

adirondacker12800 March 30, 2016 - 3:51 pm

Instead of having people go down to the train station to get on a bus let them go down to the train station and get on a train.


3ddi3 March 30, 2016 - 3:52 pm

The new LGA would do nothing to help the overcrowding of the runways, the problem is that they’re too short.
So, how do short runways benefit from a new $5bil terminal?

BruceNY March 31, 2016 - 2:17 pm

It’s not the length of the runways that causes the capacity crunch, it’s the fact they intersect each other, which forces planes that are landing to alternate with those taking off. More modern airports use parallel runways.

al March 31, 2016 - 10:52 am

Reforms will likely be in negotiating new work rules, and acceptance of best practices from around the 1st world. At this point, savings will just go to paying off the debt, and keeping the existing plant and equipment running.

Nathan March 30, 2016 - 12:22 pm

It’s a pity that the PA can’t operate as an independent authority. Unlike the MTA, it actually has the potential to be cost-neutral across its assets (the GW Bridge nets a quarter billion dollars each year). So it shouldn’t need to be beholden to the states who don’t actually contribute funding to it (and in fact regularly raid its coffers). Instead, it is filled with political cronies and tasked with ridiculous projects, rather than being simply mission-driven.

AG March 31, 2016 - 1:30 pm

Good points. NYCT subway run much more cost effectively than PATH or NJ Transit – so the PATH should be folded into the MTA. Then the WTC should be sold and the proceeds used to do things like finally get a cross harbor freight tunnel and direct rail transit access to the airports.

SEAN March 31, 2016 - 3:30 pm

And who would be stupid enough to buy the WTC & it’s insurance headache? Oh wait, there are plenty of them LOL.

AG March 31, 2016 - 10:02 pm

Well Silverstein has made plenty of money leasing buildings in the WTC… Durst is part owner in WTC #1…. So yes – there would be plenty of takers. The WTC can indeed be profitable… It’s just that the PA shouldn’t be spending there time and energy on it..

smotri April 1, 2016 - 9:10 am

The GW Bridge may net $500 million, but its physical aspect makes it seem as if it is losing that amount! The amount of rust is beyond belief.

Matt B March 30, 2016 - 12:50 pm

The only way to solve this mess is to make the NYC region (including Westchester and the areas served by NJ Transit) one state centered on Manhattan. Give the transportation assets of the Port Authority and NJ Transit to the new MTA, which would be the state DOT (since this new state would be the NY MTA region plus the areas served by NJT).

I don’t see how transit in this area is fixed any other way.

eo March 31, 2016 - 10:57 am

The thing with the state will never fly, but merging the PA, the MTA and NJTransit north of Trenton, and the portions of NY and NJ DOTs responsible for the same area into one agency independent of the states with directly electable directors and president and separate taxing power might. Too bad the cronies in Albany and Trenton will defend their turf to no end because they will lose the ability to dip their fingers into the “grease”(not that the new place won’t have cronies too, but the new agency will be able to work on a unified transportation vision as opposed to the issues which the arbitrary (even though geographically justifiable) borders of the states are creating).

lawhawk March 31, 2016 - 7:20 pm

The MTA can’t get the MNRR and LIRR on the same page, so what makes you think they’d be able to integrate NJT and PATH any better? They’ve got their fiefdoms, and instead of working towards integration, they keep operating them separately.

adirondacker12800 March 31, 2016 - 11:15 pm

Why do they need to be “on the same page”? What should they be doing together and why?

Tom March 31, 2016 - 12:25 pm


Merge the west half of CT, all of NJ north of the Trenton suburbs, and all of NY south of the Catskills into the state of Hudson. The east part of CT gets merged with RI, the south half of NJ becomes part of PA, and the rest of what was NY state is now the state of Mohawk or Adirondack

BruceNY March 30, 2016 - 1:22 pm

“Last week, while I was out of town, the agency approved spending for a new bus terminal in Manhattan that may cost as much as $12 billion…”

Twelve billion? Please tell me you forgot the decimal point between the 1 and the 2. After the debacle of the $4 Billion PATH Station, how could such a figure be contemplated for a bus terminal?

Eric F March 30, 2016 - 3:52 pm

PA meetings and board materials are open to the public, you can take a look and assess for yourself. You could even take their ultimate design, bid 1.2 billion and easily win the contract.

SEAN March 30, 2016 - 8:22 pm

The real problem with the Port Authority is… it’s way too big & has it’s hand in too many ventures to focus effectively on any of them & has very little to do with being a bi-state agency.
If you were to ask Patric what is the PA & what is it’s mission in one sentence – he wouldn’t be able to do it.

A few years ago in greater Toronto there was an agency formed called Metrolinx that combined most transportation related functions from Go transit to Presto http://www.prestocard.ca http://www.metrolinx.ca.

Both are sort of similar, but the key difference is that Metrolinx is transportation only & has nothing to do with YYZ Toronto Pearson. also local transit opperators such as Mississauga’s Miway & the TTC aid in making transit seamless even though they are outside Metrolinxes scope.

SEAN March 31, 2016 - 9:37 am Reply
alex April 8, 2016 - 10:09 am

So…. it sounds like a “hostile” takeover of North Jersey is in order then. It would really only have to be Bergen, Hudson, Essex, Union and Passaic counties if google maps is accurate. Seize the PATH and the NJT lines and give ’em to the MTA to reorganize. From what I’ve observed, people there wouldn’t mind too much. Cuomo can even ride in to his glorious conquest on a Harley if he wants.


Leave a Comment