A Tale of Two Authorities
What I am doing on my summer vacation this year is trying to help my favorite non-profit, The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. You’ve heard of people volunteering to pitch in for urban renewal projects like Habit for Humanity? My pro bono effort is for what I think of as Habitat for the Inhumanities, as toll payers in my neck of the woods consider the privilege of overpaying for the use of its facilities so that our Port Authority can invest in more and more real estate.
What inspired me to become involved in this kind of charity work was an astonishing public letter from the bi-state governors – Cuomo of New York and Christie of New Jersey – calling for the establishment of a Special Panel on the Future of the Port Authority, “which will review and evaluate reforms of the mission, structure, management, operations, and overall governance for the betterment of our region.” The bi-state governors’ publicists were treating the announcement as the greatest innovation since the invention of sliced bread.
I gave the letter (dated May 6, 2014) four cones. Those twin towers of good governance are certainly right about the need for re-evaluation. The body that controls our access to the off-shore islands of Manhattan and Long these days seem to have lost sight of the exit ramp and are running into a dead end sign.
Still the alarmist tone of the gubernatorial call for a commission to study reforms was disturbing.
Holy Austin J. Tobin! I found myself invoking the name of the iconic figure that from 1942-1973 had established the PA as the most powerful force in New York politics. The titular ruler of his New York Harbor Empire never had to ask anybody’s advice. Only Robert Moses thought he had better ideas.
My favorite port authority had always been seen as infallible, a veritable citadel of virtue and right doing, which took pride in being even more opaque about its plans then plans for an atom bomb, which can be found by tweaking The Internet. Ours was not to question why, only to pay ever-rising fees and shut the fuck up.
The proposed panel for what the bi-state governors letter called “an independent study” to examine itself was to be composed of three commissioners from each state, and a representative from each governor’s office. As my contribution to the public good, I invited myself to sit on the panel as an ex-officio member, a representative of the toll-paying public, without whom none of the PA’s achievements would have been possible. It was kind of like fantasy baseball for a civic-minded person like myself.
At the risk of boring those unlucky wretches who don’t have their own local public port authority—and there are only some 130 of them in the Western Hemisphere, from Coos Bay, Oregon to Trois- Rivieres in Canada and La Plata in South America—I have been writing a series of compositions on what I did on my summer vacation.
A couple of things worried me, as I rolled up my sleeves and went to work.
By definition, establishing a commission to study a problem is a guarantee nothing will get done. A so-called independent group made up of participants in a crime, historically, has a tendency to exonerate itself as the first order of business.
Secondly, the work of the study group, according to the bi-state governors’ letter, is supposed to be completed in time for the 100th anniversary of the Port Authority (Est. 1921). I feared it might run out of time.
Gov. Cuomo closed down his Moreland Commission formed to study corruption in the Empire state after only nine months. Given Cuomo’s recipe for economic recovery in up-state New York —casinos and fracking are a brew of loan sharking, prostitution, drug selling and black mail for the Mob —one would think his panel had a lot more to do before they were made to shuffle off to Buffalo, N.Y.
Gov. Christie himself could not be counted on to put up a stiff resistance if the study group got the guillotine from his partner across the river. Especially since some of the need for reforms were caused by his political hacks on the PA’s board of governors.
All in all, the bi-state governors’ call for self-examination might be a dead letter before I was able to perform my community service.
In the few moments I had left before the commission study group was disbanded, I jotted down a few suggestions, based on consultations with my usually informed sources. Also my uniformed reliable sources, and unreliably uninformed sources.
1. What the hell is the PA still doing in the real estate biz when downtown is over built?
And why the hell are they in real estate in the first place? They’re ignoring their real job, which is transportation.
With all of those billionaires from Dubai and Moscow and Beijing siphoning money out of their own countries, wanting to buy buildings in London, Hong Kong and Manhattan, there should be no problem unloading those white elephants with still unrented office space we financed with toll payers’ money.
Now I realize this is a painful suggestion because the PA is loaded with dudes who never met a real estate guy they didn’t like. Especially the public servants who in their day jobs work for law firms who happen to be consultants for the developers. Stop treating the PA like a piggy bank for realtors, I say.
2. Why don’t we stop blaming everything that goes wrong with the PA these days on Chris Christie? The PA doesn’t need this Christie to cook the books or make bad decisions when we had, for example, the other Christie Whitless. A source reminded me of the 1990 claim that NJ bus commuters cost the poor PA a fortune. The PA spent $80 million, according to my numbers guy, to match $800 million in Federal money to buy commuter buses, but took the entire depreciation (almost $90 million a year as a commuter “expense”). The Pulaski Skyway caper is in the noble tradition of PA funny money.
3. Why don’t we use some toll money to buy a GPS to help show our planning department just where the Lincoln Tunnel is so the PA’s laughing stock wont go up while its credibility goes down in another Pulaski Skyway cock-up.
4. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is too big for its bridges and tunnels and real estate. Let’s break it up into two separate authorities. That way we could have two sets of scandals and more work for lawyers.
I will have more to say about to say about these and other constructive proposals before my summer vacation is over.
June 30, 2014