HANSEN: Federal government should take over Port Authority
Opinions Column: Oh, the Places You'll Go
A century ago, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued an order to the states of New York and New Jersey that would prove enormously consequential. It mandated that the two states, in order to deal with disputes over trans-Hudson shipping, create a public authority that would subordinate each states’ needs to the public interest. The child of a Progressive Era mission to reduce public corruption and increase government efficiency, the Port of New York Authority came to be in 1921, and later changed its name to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Responsible for managing much of the region’s transportation needs, it oversees the Port Authority Bus Terminal, several bridges, the PATH train, John F. Kennedy International, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty International Airports, among other critical transit facilities.
When it was founded, the Port Authority was visionary. Clashes between New York and New Jersey over logistical issues necessitated some sort of agreement, and the Port Authority was the first interstate compact authorized by Article 1, Section 10 of the U.S. Constitution. It oversees the largest volume of shipping on the Eastern Seaboard. It is, in other words, critically important and has provided a great public service.
Unfortunately, it often fails to serve the interests of the bi-state public, with politicians opting to serve their narrow, parochial interests. The Port Authority has a Board of Commissioners, appointed by the governors of New York and New Jersey. The governor of New York chooses the executive director, the governor of New Jersey chooses a chairman and other appointment rights switch between the states. After the "Bridgegate" scandal, the Authority agreed to switch to a system where the board elects a CEO, and the chairmanship rotates between the two states. One problem: They haven’t found anyone qualified (or foolish) enough to take the CEO job.
One might think this would lead to an equitable distribution of power and intelligent decisions on public infrastructure. It hasn’t. One obvious problem is that governors can stack the commission with political allies. Take Bill Baroni, an appointee of Gov. Christie (R-N.J.), who was indicted on nine counts of conspiracy, fraud and other charges related to "Bridgegate."
The other problem lies in incentives. Governors exercise enormous power, and their incentives are narrow — they both want to serve their own states. Take, for example, the much-needed LaGuardia renovation. This is a key part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D-N.Y.) transportation initiative, and rightfully so — LaGuardia is a disaster. New Jersey, of course, wants a slice of the pie — a $2.3 billion Newark Liberty project. This isn’t as needed. Newark operates at 5 percent over capacity. LaGuardia is more than 75 percent above capacity. But New Jersey wants its slice of the pie. It’s just like when I was a toddler and thought that if my brother got a cookie, I should get one too, even if I wasn’t hungry. Except it’s adults instead of small children, critical infrastructure projects instead of cookies and billions of dollars in public money instead of $1 of my parents’.
Of course, politicians’ interests also depend on time. The Port Authority Bus Terminal, built in 1950, reached operating capacity in 1966. The planners of new facilities, like a new Port Authority Bus Terminal, need to look a half-century or more ahead. Politicians with term limits (and life spans, for that matter) don’t have the incentive to look that far.
Some have called for the dissolution of the Port Authority. But as Second Avenue Sagas' Benjamin Kabak notes, we can’t just eliminate it: We need to replace it with something better. A better version would be one administered by the federal government. Someone in the administration — either the President or the Secretary of Transportation — could appoint a director. States could have some influence, but the primary administrators would be federal. With decision makers free of political pressures by their respective governors, technocrats in the administration could make decisions that reflected the best interests of both states.
Just like we entrust sensitive issues of monetary policy to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, we should entrust sensitive issues of public transportation policy to an apolitical board.
Nick Hansen is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in political science with a minor in history. His column, "Oh, the Places You'll Go," runs on alternate Tuesdays.
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