Wisniewski emphasized that it is still too early in his committee’s investigation to assess the full scope of the problems at the Port Authority, which runs bridges, tunnels, airports, ports, the PATH light rail system, and the World Trade Center with an annual budget larger than those of 26 states.
“We do know that we have an agency whose executive director, Patrick Foye, admits under oath he is powerless to do anything to control excesses. We have an agency whose career employees are in fear for their jobs if they don’t do what the political people tell them to do. We have a report last year that says the agency is dysfunctional, and the governors on both sides of the river promise they will fix it -- and this is how they fix it!” Wisnewski said dismissively, referring to the Bridge-gate revelations.
“In theory, what we’ve been told is that Baroni and Foye are appointed by the Port Authority’s Board of Commissioners and are answerable to those commissioners,” he said. “But the practical reality of the two states is that they are appointed by the governors. When half of the agency is responsible to one side of river and half to the other, you have in effect two agencies that more often than not have different agendas. It’s as if an iron curtain exists between the two sides, and they can only watch with horror what the other side is doing and not do anything about it.”
Wisnieski said he has started to wonder whether the best way to fix the Port Authority is “to abolish it and start from scratch.”
“I understand the need to have a government agency involved in building bridges and tunnels between the two states,” Wisniewski said. “What I raise questions about is the real estate empire. The private sector is pretty good at doing that.”
Jameson W. Doig, the Princeton University professor who wrote Empire on the Hudson, an authoritative history of the first 75 years of the Port Authority, said the enormous sums that the authority poured into rebuilding the World Trade Center over the past decade not only severely taxed the resources of the agency, but also “made it very difficult for Cuomo to challenge any of the actions that Christie took.”
“The Port Authority taking over Atlantic City airport is a big favor to Christie, but it has nothing to do with the interest of the region the Port Authority is supposed to operate in under its charter,” Doig said.
Wisniewski said the reason that the Port Authority is taking over operation of Atlantic City’s airport is because the Port Authority previously took over Newburgh Airport in New York.
Newburgh is just outside the 25-mile circumference of Lower Manhattan that makes up the Port Authority zone, while Atlantic City is more than 60 miles outside it, “but in the fine tradition of the Port Authority, almost like a baseball trade, we got the right to name an airport to take over later,” he said
“This agency, because of its byzantine management structure, just seems to grow by accretion and there is no effective check on its growth,” Wisniewski said.
Weinberg said her resolution asking Congress to analyze the structure and management of the Port Authority is based in part on the agency’s lack of transparency and responsiveness both to complaints about the massive toll hikes approved last year and to her own inquiries about the Fort Lee lane closures.