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.