Controversy Should Not Diminish Port Authority’s Essential Work

Controversy Should Not Diminish Port Authority’s Essential Work

Controversy Should Not Diminish Port Authority’s Essential Work
February 28, 2014

To acknowledge the obvious, The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has recently been beset by controversy. While the questions being raised appropriately command our attention and commitment to discovery and reform, they also risk distracting us from a larger point: the essential nature of the Port’s good work and its indispensable role as our most potent vehicle for regional public investment and cooperation. 

Although I have been an observer and participant in state, regional and city government for more than five decades, I wasn’t around for the creation of the Port Authority in 1921. A child of the progressive era, the Port’s establishment put an end to years of destructive interstate bickering and has provided the platform for building hundreds of billions of dollars of public works, leveraging untold billions more in federal dollars and engaging a wide variety of critical infrastructural needs that fall outside neat state boundaries.

While a creature of politics by the nature of its investments, structure and responsibilities, the Port fundamentally serves as a long-term hedge against our short-term obsessions. Professionalism, honesty and technical excellence need to be pillars of the Port’s work, but, in an age of easy cynicism, let‘s remember that politics is the way we collectively endeavor to mediate competing interests, set a common agenda and allocate resources. By its nature it is fractious and messy. While there must be zero tolerance for corruption, “depoliticizing” the Port and turning it over to “philosopher kings” removed from the accountability of elected public officials would engender its own set of dangers. The legacy—both positive and negative—of the Moses era of public authorities with unchecked and often unquestioned power ought never to be too far from our considerations.

The Port’s history is a consequential one that has allowed our region to flourish. It has not only overseen the construction of much of our regional transportation infrastructure—our bridges, tunnels, airports and seaports—but the Port has also given birth to the World Trade Center (new and old), the Port Authority Bus Terminal, our marine terminals, heliports and PATH train. Its creations are the circulatory system of our economy.

The capital budget adopted yesterday by the Port Authority’s board is an object lesson in the Port’s enduring importance.

The Port Authority’s 10-year, $27.6 billion capital spending plan, has much wisdom in it. For those of us focused on Lower Manhattan, the $1.5 billion plan to connect its PATH train system to the rail station at Newark Liberty International Airport is a game-changing investment. Creating a seamless 36 minute ride from the WTC to Newark Airport will replace what is currently an unpredictable ride with multiple transfers that can take more than 90 minutes. With this project it will become an efficient, direct link that will serve the growing number of residents, workers and tourists who make Lower Manhattan their base. The $4.9 billion to complete the development of the World Trade Center complex in Lower Manhattan is also very much welcome news and good public policy. We celebrate the prospect of these investments not only as boosters of Lower Manhattan but as a group of business and community leaders who recognize that long-term investment in our infrastructure is the key to our future.

Furthermore, this budget contains $8 billion in desperately needed investment in our airports, focused specifically on the Central Terminal Building at La Guardia Airport and Terminal A at Newark. The authority will also spend to upgrade PATH stations, improve access to container port facilities and continue major repair operations, such as replacing the 85-year-old suspender cables that support the roadways across the George Washington Bridge and renovating the Goethals Bridge.

Government is clearly an imperfect business, but in its imperfection our system does manage to get some things right. The logic of the Port, the immensity of its accomplishments this year and over decades past, proves its worth as an institution and as a pillar of our future.


Robert R. Douglass is the Chairman of the Downtown-Lower Manhattan Association, a former member of the Board of Commissioners of the Port Authority and the former chief of staff to New York State Governor Nelson Rockefeller.

Robert Douglass