Chaos at the Port Authority

If you want to recall the good old days of the Soviet Union, take a look at the mess at the Port Authority. The phrase "Soviet-style bureaucracy" still applies to the bi-state behemoth that impacts so much of the regional economy. It's as secretive, power-hungry, arbitrary and faction-ridden as anything Stalin could have concocted. Like much of late-Soviet government, the authority still functions, and important decisions are sometimes correctly made. But it cries out for reform, and won't serve the public interest until big changes are made.

Some history: The Port Authority is a two-state public benefit corporation ("authority") created about 100 years ago by both federal law and the laws of New York and New Jersey. Its initial mission was to deal with problems of the NY/NJ port, and related transportation facilities. As the port declined, that mission has morphed  into the management of all kinds of transportation systems, bridges, trains, tunnels, airports and ferries. In recent decades it expanded into real estate, starting with the construction of the original World Trade Center towers in the 1960s.

The Port Authority is financed not by taxes, but by system revenues, largely tolls. It is governed by a board appointed by the two states’ governors, and by their respective state laws, which each enact in the exact same language. Here's where the problems arise.

Unlike any other bureaucracy, nobody oversees the Port Authority. The two governors control it. No legislative oversight, no legal structure limiting its business practices. As a result, it's the poster child for gubernatorial horse-trading, midnight raids on pots of cash and distorted priorities. Some of that manifests itself in bizarre ways – i.e., closing a bridge to punish a political opponent – a truly Stalinesque maneuver. Or auto tolls used to finance the World Trade Center rebuild – a fiscal gimmick Abe Beame would understand.

Lately, the Port Authority is notable for its leadership's Nixonian (Trumpish?) use of unvarnished blackmail as its governing method.

Take a look at the Jersey/New York fight about funding capital projects. Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants big bucks to rebuild LaGuardia. Gov. Chris Christie wants a new Times Square bus terminal, one stop away from Jersey. Christie sidekick John Degnan, the Port Authority chairman, won't sign off on the LaGuardia rebuild without a bus terminal deal. No real numbers or source of funds identified, just a deal.

The interstate rivalry received some added spice when New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney (perhaps mulling a run for governor) decided to take on New York's Pat Foye, the Port Authority executive director (honest and smart), for opposing the bus terminal. "I would have fired him on the spot. Who the hell did he think he was? He works for them. He’s not their equal. He’s not their advisor. But that shows you how screwed up the place (is).”

Strip away the colorful language and the regional competition, and there's still a lot at stake. The Port Authority, by law, is supposed to have a controlling voice in assuring that our transportation infrastructure meets our needs, but instead has been sidetracked by personalities and bad leadership. The same people who have screwed it up are frustrating efforts to fix it. Cuomo and Christie both vetoed good reform bills passed by both Legislatures in Jersey and New York. Sweeney calls himself the "fly in the ointment" on reform. Naturally, Sweeney wants the same toys that Christie has if he becomes governor.

The Port Authority needs to return to its first principles. Its leadership needs to reinvigorate its primary mission as the custodian of the regional transportation system. It needs to stand up to both governors when they try to use it for narrow sectional interests. It needs to stop spending toll money on non-transportation projects. It needs a governing principle better than blackmail and back-scratching.

The smart external fix is for both the Jersey and New York Legislatures to insist on their reform legislation and override the gubernatorial vetoes of the reform bills. It will help. There's also a chance that the public will regain outrage if and when “Bridge-gate” trials yield convictions. There's also an opportunity for Port Authority board members to recall their oath of office and demand internal reforms, no matter what Cuomo/Christie/Sweeney say. And Foye, who has resigned a couple of times, has the brains to blister the existing system as he exits.

We've watched all kinds of public institutions dissolve into dysfunction – Congress, the presidency, the Supreme Court, state legislatures, mayors, governors, city councils and now, the Port Authority. The public has no patience for leadership cliques of any ideology. Brexit is the European expression of that frustration. It will come to New York and New Jersey sooner rather than later. It would be nice, and politically astute, for the Port Authority leadership clique to see writing on the wall, before something really unpleasant happens.

Richard Brodsky is a former assemblyman who is in the private practice of law and serves as a senior fellow at both Demos and NYU's Wagner School. He is a regular columnist for the Albany Times Union and The Huffington Post.