Get the Port Authority back to basics – By George J. Marlin

The following op-ed piece I wrote appeared in Newsday on February 2, 2014.

The repeated claim by Port Authority bureaucrats over the years that the agency is removed from the political environment and exercises the best scientific management theories is nonsense.

Because the ultimate overseers of the bi-state agency created in 1921 are the governors of New York and New Jersey, the authority will always be managed by their political allies. However, that does not mean the authority’s practices and policies cannot be reformed or improved.

For several months, the Port Authority has been embroiled in scandal amid allegations that a top authority appointee of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie abused the power of his office to create traffic havoc on the George Washington Bridge to punish a political foe — and that Christie knew more than he has acknowledged. A federal investigation is underway, and a spotlight has been cast on the agency’s operations.

One glaring shortcoming at the agency that can be eliminated with the stroke of a pen is the Port Authority’s Regional Economic Development Program — also known by authority insiders as “The Bank.” Established along with the 1984 toll hike, The Bank funded some $400 million in pet projects on either side of the Hudson River.

This fund, which has been replenished after each toll hike, has been a reward to governors for not objecting to toll increases.

Abolishing the program would send a strong message that the governors are serious about reforming the agency.

The Port Authority lost its way in the 1980s and early 1990s when its mission was redefined as a regional economic engine instead of a brain trust for transportation policy. Authority officials, who did not understand market forces, funded countless economic initiatives that failed, including the Brooklyn Fishport fishing complex; industrial parks in Bathgate, Yonkers and Elizabeth; a World Trade Institute that included a language school; and a downtown hotel.

Fortunately, some of those economic projects were sold or closed during my tenure as executive director — and others the authority has been saddled with for decades are being unloaded. Its Essex County Resource Recovery Facility was sold last year; the Newark Legal Center is being sold; and the Teleport office park on Staten Island is on the market.

For the authority to get back on track, it must recommit to its core mission — transportation — and examine all its undertakings and projects to determine whether they are germane to the agency’s mission. Financial resources should be shifted from headquarters staff to line department operations — aviation, port commerce and transportation. And an aggressive capital program to overhaul its aging infrastructure should move ahead.

Some of this is already in the making: About $5 billion in investments have been committed to rehabilitating Kennedy and LaGuardia airports. More than $2.6 billion is being dedicated to fix the infrastructure of the George Washington and Bayonne bridges. And plans to build a new Goethals Bridge are underway.

If the Port Authority gets back to basics and efficiently meets the critical transportation needs of the region, the public will be the winner. But that will require two governors to stop using the agency as a bank to fund their pet projects.

George J. Marlin, a former executive director of the Port Authority (1995-1997), is a director of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority.

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