Authority Overhaul?

Authority Overhaul?

Authority Overhaul?
July 22, 2014

Two of the New York City region’s public authorities are up for inspection.

With the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey enmeshed in the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey has joined forces with Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York to create an oversight committee to investigate the bi-state authority over which the governors exercise so much control.

The resulting Special Panel on the Future of the Port Authority issued a preliminary report on July 3, but it was little more than a description of the agency’s problems and a promise to focus in the coming months on the question of whether the authority should be drastically restructured or even split in two. “The leadership structure often encourages the split of the organization into competing regional interests and the creation of fractured lines of authority within the agency,” the report read.

Some experts have their doubts as to whether the panel will be effective.

“Are the governors going to try to take control and block reforms?” asked Jameson Doig, a professor emeritus at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public & International Affairs and author of Empire on the Hudson, an exhaustive history of the Port Authority. “The July 3 report does not offer any guidance on that question. Nor does it go into the reforms that critics had identified earlier—such as eliminating patronage hires and permitting the board to select the executive director after a wide search, rather than allowing the New York governor to make that choice.”

The oversight panel is made up of Christie’s former chief of staff, Richard Bagger, his current chief counsel, Christopher Porrino, and John Degnan, one of Christie’s freshly confirmed picks for the authority board, along with Cuomo’s chief counsel, Mylan Denerstein, and Scott Rechler of RXR Realty, who is also vice chairman of the Port Authority board of commissioners, and who has served as an advisor to Cuomo in the past.

While Christie’s main problem with the Port Authority stems from accusations of corruption against his administration, Doig thinks Cuomo’s issue with the agency is a lack of interest. “Over the last several years, Cuomo has paid little attention to the Port Authority,” Doig said. “He allowed Christie to go forward with the patronage hires and with some other activities, such as removing the funds from the ARC tunnels so they could be used for the Pulaski Skyway, and giving Port Authority money for local improvements to New Jersey mayors if they would endorse his re-election.”

Gov. Cuomo has not yet chosen a third pick for the oversight committee. Asked when he would make the appointment, a spokesperson from the governor’s office said only that “The panel is working productively to develop recommendations on reform at the Port Authority.”

The oversight committee has promised to release a comprehensive review by the end of the year.

In May, Gov. Andrew Cuomo sent a letter to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority calling for a new commission to “fundamentally re-examine” its mass transit system. Citing Superstorm Sandy, climate change, centuryold infrastructure and increasing ridership, the governor recommended the agency select a panel of international transportation experts to formulate a plan for its future.

As a result, in June the MTA appointed a 24-member Transportation Reinvention Commission charged with studying and improving the agency.

Unlike the Committee on Oversight, the commission, which will help inform the agency’s next capital plan, is packed with comparatively independent policy stars and power brokers. Co-chaired by previous U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and former head of the Federal Aviation Administration Jane Garvey, the panel includes such big names as Rohit Aggarwala, a Columbia professor who served as former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s director of long-term planning and sustainability, Partnership for New York City President and CEO Kathy Wylde, London’s deputy mayor for transport, Isabel Dedring and Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá, Columbia. All are working pro bono.

“The use of the word reinvention points to the broad, open nature of their deliberations,” said MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan.

The commission is split into five working groups, focusing on future maintenance of the system, meeting consumer demands, spurring economic growth in New York City, streamlining the delivery of capital projects and figuring out how to finance them.

Veronica Vanterpool, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and a member of the MTA commission, emphasized the need to reform decision-making processes.

“The funding resources that are available to the MTA are really inadequate to meet the growing infrastructure needs for the system,” Vanterpool said. “The purpose … is to examine a new paradigm of how projects are decided and prioritized, and maybe even funded. So this is really just overhauling the entire thinking that goes into the selection of capital projects.”

In its first public meeting, held on July 15, committee members discussed the federal government’s lack of interest in funding New York transit projects, overhauling the agency’s governing structure and expanding transportation infrastructure in concert with the city’s land use and affordable housing plans.

New York City’s Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg mentioned the need for communication between the MTA and DOT, and the possibility of expanding the city’s rapid transit bus services.

Whether the commission’s ideas will change the trajectory of the MTA is something New Yorkers won’t have to wait too long to find out: The agency’s 2015–19 Capital Plan is slated to be finalized by Oct.1.

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Azure Gilman