Dana Rubinstein AP News
In a joint press release on Saturday night, Governors Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie unveiled their long-awaited plan for reforming the Port Authority, while at the same time vetoing a Port-reform bill passed unanimously by both the New York and New Jersey state legislatures.
In separate letters sent to the legislatures in their respective states, Cuomo and Christie said that the program recommended by their "Special Panel on the Future of the Port Authority" was superior to the one they passed.
"The governance structure and other accountability measures recommended by the Special Panel will do a better job of improving accountability," wrote Cuomo.
The governors also agreed to sign a separate bill that would make the bistate authority subject to the states' freedom of information laws.
That move was not unexpected.
"I bet a beer that they would go with the [freedom of information] bill and not the governance bill," John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, emailed Capital on Friday night. "The FOI bill doesn't threaten the prerogatives of the governors."
According to Kaehny, the law will allow constituents seeking information to appeal Port Authority denials to courts in New York and New Jersey, which are independent of the authority and are inclined toward transparency.
Advocates and officials who’d hoped that national attention to the spectacular misbehavior of Christie's authority appointees in the Bridgegate scandal would catalyze more substantive reform of the authority were crestfallen.
"The governors made the wrong decision," Valerie Vainieri Huttle, a New Jersey assemblywoman and a sponsor of the vetoed bill in Trenton, said in a statement. "It's appalling and disappointing that these basic common sense bills were not signed into law, especially considering the serious problems we've seen at the Port Authority under these governors."
“It’s very disappointing that the reform bill was not signed into law," agreed Assemblyman James Brennan, a Brooklyn Democrat and sponsor of an identical reform bill in Albany, in a separate statement, adding that “each measure was aimed at providing greater transparency and accountability to an authority that has come under growing public scrutiny over the years, as abuses and scandals accumulated."
The bills the governors vetoed would have subjected the Port to standards already imposed on other New York State authorities earlier this century.
More precisely, it would have required the Port Authority’s commissioners to certify in writing that their loyalty is to the authority (versus the governors who appointed them). It would have mandated that the authority write up policies for disposal and acquisition of authority property, establish a whistleblower program, require staff to report suspicions of fraud and corruption to the agency’s inspector general, require all commissioners to file annual financial disclosure statements, and more.
The governors, via their "special panel," instead asked the Port Authority's board of commissioners to, among other things, "tender an offer of resignation to be considered by their prospective governor."
Jameson Doig, a Princeton government professor and the author of the Port Authority history, Empire on the Hudson, called that "a bad idea," saying that commissioners are supposed to be insulated from short-term political imperatives and observers "will see these resignations as indicating that the commissioners were at fault in creating the chaos of the past four years. The governors would be glad if they could get off the hook."
The panel also called for the Port Authority to sell real estate holdings at the World Trade Center site and elsewhere that are no longer central to the Port's "transportation mission," the sort of mission-drift correction long advocated by Cuomo's executive director at the Port, Pat Foye.
The panel also recommended repurposing or selling "underperforming assets," like the container terminal in Red Hook.
The Port Authority is now run by a Jersey-appointed chairman, a New York-appointed vice chairman, a New York-appointed executive director, and a Jersey-appointed deputy executive director. The arrangement, itself the product of a political deal dating back to the 1990s, has led to a muddled hierarchy and the creation of state-specific fiefdoms within an agency created to transcend just those sort of cross-Hudson rivalries.
Experts have long recommended doing away with that structure by eliminating the deputy executive director position.
The governors proposed doing something along those lines.
They called for replacing the executive director and deputy executive director positions with one centralized C.E.O. And they proposed replacing the existing chair and vice-chair structure with two co-chairs or a rotating chair.
Doig said those changes "should be very helpful, especially in ending the role of the two governors in fragmenting Port Authority leadership."
The report also calls for the authority to "seek an improved operating model" for the PATH system, and for it to pursue avenues it's already pursuing, like rebuilding the decrepit Port Authority Bus Terminal and the region's airports.
Many of these suggestions might require legislative action. It's not clear the two states' legislatures, whose best efforts at Port reform were just spurned, will be in any mood to cooperate.
"[T]he Governors missed a big opportunity to put the Port Authority on the right track by vetoing the bill reforming governance," said five good government groups—Citizens Union, New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, NYPIRG, Reinvent Albany, & Tri-State Transportation Campaign—in a joint statement. "It is obvious that the Port Authority has lost its way, and Governors Cuomo and Christie have now vetoed a bill which was unanimously supported by the state legislatures of New York and New Jersey, numerous public stakeholders and editorial boards. This much-needed legislation would have put in place fundamental reforms necessary to make the Port Authority far more accountable."
The bistate Port Authority is sprawling and consequential. It controls all three of the region’s major airports, the largest cargo port on the East Coast, the PATH, the World Trade Center site, and several tunnels and bridges, including the George Washington Bridge, the nation’s busiest.
In recent decades, the governors' politicization of the agency has severely tarnished its once-excellent reputation as a paradigm of effective governance.
Perhaps no governor damaged it more than Chris Christie, who unilaterally canceled one of the nation’s most important infrastructure projects, one partially funded by the Port, so that he could redirect the money to road-building within his own state. He's also the governor who packed the agency with dozens of patronage appointees, three of whom were key players in the politically motivated George Washington Bridge lane closures that constituted Bridgegate.
It's not clear that either the reform bills the governors vetoed, the reform bills that Cuomo and Christie have agreed to sign or the reforms they themselves are proposing would have done anything to prevent that.
The authority is fundamentally a creature of the two governors who control it.
Until Saturday, Christie and Cuomo, who have a cordial, mutually beneficial relationship, have never expressed much interest in Port Authority reform.
In May, after Senator Chuck Schumer publicly decried the “the Tammany Hall-style behavior” at the authority, the governors created a Special Panel on the Future of the Port Authority to look at ways to improve the agency.
They requested the panel give them “specific” recommendations within 60 days.
On the eve of the long July 4 weekend, the panel instead delivered an unspecific five-page letter the governors called an “initial report.” It did little more than describe the problem and the steps already taken to ameliorate that problem. It promised to explore the possibility for reform in several different areas in the future.
By the time of the panel’s “initial report,” Cuomo hadn’t bothered to fill all three of the positions on the Special Panel that he was entitled to.
Its final report didn't arrive until today.
None of this was terribly surprising. Though it was a Cuomo appointee, Port Authority executive director Pat Foye, who emerged as the hero of Bridgegate when the emails he wrote decrying the lane closures made their way into the Wall Street Journal, Cuomo has tried to keep his distance from Port issues.
In February, during the heat of Bridgegate, a reporter asked Cuomo how he responded when he learned of the politically motivated lane closures on the bridge he jointly controls.
“I didn't personally get involved in it," he said. "Whoever is responsible for the Port Authority was dealing with it, but I didn't.”
Christie, meanwhile, has openly warned against reforming the Port too much, since most actual reforms would dilute his power, and he’s answerable to the voters.
“We do need to remember that Governor Cuomo and I are the only two people who are elected in either state who have authority over the Port Authority,” he said in April. “I don’t know that people would want to go exclusively to an unelected group of people to be making these decisions regarding tens of billions of dollars. So I think we have to be careful about it.”
Experts have blamed Port Authority dysfunction on, among other people, King Charles II, who delineated the New York-New Jersey boundary that would someday divide the world’s largest metropolitan economy and necessitate a bistate infrastructure agency; Nelson Rockefeller, who asked the Port Authority to take on the World Trade Center development site, instigating mission drift; and Governors Christie Whitman and George Pataki, whose dispute over Port leadership led to a fateful compromise that muddied the agency’s hierarchy forevermore.
In April, the Port Authority’s post-Bridgegate special oversight committee heard testimony from experts in a meeting that was open to the press.
Afterward, a reporter asked Port Authority vice-chair Scott Rechler, a Cuomo appointee, what role the two governors were playing in reform discussions.
"Generally speaking, I think both governors recognize that it’s critical to reform the Port so it’s as effective as possible," he said.
Then he added, “To the extent that you need to force a governor to veto something, you may get to that point.”