Fixing the Port Authority: Here's What's on the Table

From breaking it up to going back to basics, here are the four contenders.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014 - 11:58 AM

The George Washington Bridge, one of the Port Authority's Hudson River crossings (Andrew Burton/Getty)

The Port Authority's flaws are getting a very public airing, and the diagnoses are flying: it has strayed from its core mission. It's divided into political fiefdoms. It's hemorrhaging money on the PATH train. The problems are easy to point out. What's less clear is what the fix is. Here's a look at four Port prescriptions being kicked around:

1. Split it up. The prospect of dividing the Port's assets between the two states is tantalizing to Governors Christie and Cuomo. But with six trans-Hudson crossings, breaking up is hard to do. In the words of Pat Foye, the Port's executive director, splitting up would be "akin to Olympic ice skating, with a high degree of difficulty." It's not worth it, say some transportation experts. "No matter what you do," said one, "you're going to have to have bi-state cooperation."

2. Watch it like a hawk. A lot of criticism leveled at the Port focuses on a lack of transparency. The Citizens Budget Commission has called for the Port to have more public involvement in its budgeting process. An audit found its problems with its capital planning process and "siloed" managerial structure. And a 2013 U.S. Government Accountability Office report on bi-state tolling authorities — of which the Port is the largest — pointed out the Port lacks accountability and serious federal oversight. Part of the problem: the Port is of both states, but not answerable to the sunshine laws of either. Legislation could change that, but both states would have to get on board. And if history is any guide, that's not a slam-dunk.

3. Change its managerial structure. Critics say 1995 was when the Port hit a political tipping point. That's when New York Governor George Pataki wanted to appoint the head of the state's Conservative Party to run the Port. That rankled New Jersey's governor, Christine Todd Whitman, who demanded quid pro quo in the form of a Deputy Executive Director. Fast-forward 19 years. Now, political interests at the Port are only more entrenched.  The fix? Don't give the state's governors the power to appoint the Port's executive director. Instead, say some, the board of commissioners should pick the leader. Caveat: where is this fantasy land in which the governors selflessly appoint commissioners? Because it's not looking like it's housed in Albany and Trenton these days.

4. Get back to basics. A recently released report from New York University's Rudin Center says the Port's problems go beyond mismanagement and political abuse...and into mission creep. The report asserts the authority should stop using the money-making pieces of its portfolio — bridges, tunnels, and airports — to fund money-losing operations like the PATH and pet projects of the governors. Instead, the authors argue, the Port should focus on its revenue-generating facilities, like the airports.

It's unclear what's next for the Port. It's putting together its own panel that will make recommendations for reform.  But it's likely that Governor Cuomo hit the nail on the head when he talked about the Port's problems this weekend. Structural change, he pointed out, is "much easier said than done."



Comments [5]


It would be inteesting to know exactly what it costs the PA to operate each of the river crossing. That number should then be compared with other sources to see how they are doing in relation to compareable places. I realize NPR is whole heartedly against means testing but this is for transportations sake and I would hope you can make an exception.

Apr. 04 2014 10:06 PM
JOSEPH P. WALL from The Bronx

My suggestion would be to combine the Port Authority with the M.T.A to form one whole transportation network while at the same time overhauling both agencies to serve the riding public better. That is, the public would then be allowed greater particapation by voting on large mega projects that they may not be able to vote on now and the M.T.A would have to become an agency whereby anybody who wishes to work on the M.T.A board would have to run for a slot on the board the same as Mayor, Governor, etc for a term of two to four years and at the same time sit down with the riding public in each of the 5 boroughs of New York City as well as seperate areas in New Jersey and discuss with the riding public how to make the transit system better.T

Apr. 04 2014 11:35 AM
TOM from Brooklyn

$17 billion in debt; try $20 billion! Plus $27 billion cap' plan.

As long as the bondholders(and they are 'the deciders') get their interest & principal, and nobody threatens to put that at risk,they don't ask questions.

So we end up with WTC and Fishport. Mass transit is a no-go as is a cross-harbor tunnel for freight(only waiting 80 years for that).

Apr. 03 2014 01:27 PM
Mark Schuyler from Brooklyn

Oh, I remember the days back when a billion dollars was REAL money...when the Port was so flush with cash that it could build the world's biggest bathtub (the containment structure for, yes, the World Trade Center) and fill it with the world's biggest Rubber Ducky.

Seventeen billion in debt? No worries...not with this cash machine...commerce is travel, travel is profits.

Apr. 03 2014 09:53 AM
Cate Long from New York

Here is the problem: who would take on the $17 billion in debt?

The Port Authority’s big debt sinkhole.

Apr. 03 2014 08:32 AM

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