Four years after 'Bridgegate,' Port's fiefdoms are coming back
Crain's New York Business
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is a crucial agency. With a massive $8 billion budget, it manages the airports, maritime ports, PATH trains and trans-Hudson bridges and tunnels, which are vital to the region's economy.
But it is badly governed and in need of reform. Distinct New York and New Jersey fiefdoms within the agency, each looking out for its state and its governor's pet projects, have for decades undermined the mission to promote the long-term interests of the region.
More than four years ago, after "Bridgegate" and subsequent scandals at the Port Authority, I was asked, along with representatives from the Regional Plan Association and academic institutions, to address the agency's commissioners on how to reform its governance.
My primary recommendations were to create a chief executive officer position and have the chair of the board rotate every two years between a commissioner from New York and one from New Jersey. A rotating chair would promote the goal of "faithful cooperation" articulated in the 1921 interstate compact that established the Port Authority. Every chair would know that the other state would soon have leadership responsibility, and each would need cooperation and respect from the other. A board-chosen, professional CEO would unify decision-making under a single office and create a more coherent structure.
These two reforms would do much to overcome the fiefdom mentality that stemmed from the executive director being a New York appointee and the chairman and deputy executive director being New Jersey appointees.
To my surprise, the commissioners and both governors quickly endorsed the recommendations. In 2015 New York state legislators passed these and other reforms, which needed approval from their New Jersey counterparts to take effect. The next year New Jersey passed a bill that included the governance reforms but also new oversight and transparency measures. Then-Gov. Chris Christie vetoed it and urged the Legislature to pass the same bill that New York did.
Two years later, with Gov. Phil Murphy having succeeded Christie, the New Jersey Senate has advanced a Port Authority reform bill that does not include the rotating chairmanship and CEO. The arrangement that has long impeded effective, nonpolitical decision-making by the authority remains in effect. Murphy says he wants it this way and plans to appoint a New Jersey deputy executive director, a post vacant since the scandals.
Resuscitating that post and continuing the divisive governance structure would be a mistake. Though the Port Authority has made internal changes to improve transparency and oversight, governance reform must be enshrined in law to endure. Without a mandate to end the dysfunctional and politicized division of responsibilities, the agency will struggle to recruit the professional leadership needed to restore the bistate agency's dynamism.
New Jersey's legislators and governor did not create the crisis that brought me before the board of commissioners in 2014. But they should take the initiative to move our region into a vibrant future by adopting the reform bill passed by New York. This will enable the Port Authority to serve the regional economy well for its second 100 years.