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Analysis: Christie-Cuomo Deal Shows Need For Real Reform at Port Authority

Transparency bill is good first step, but Legislature also needs to strengthen agency against political interference by governors, advocates say

christie and cuomo
Credit: WNYC.org
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) and top transportation advocates yesterday criticized a recently discovered secret deal between Gov. Chris Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to divvy up authority over Port Authority projects in their respective states as just the latest example of a pattern of political interference that has undermined the bistate agency.

“This agreement between the two governors creates a dangerous situation that excuses one governor from exercising any check over the excesses of the other governor,” said Martin E. Robins, director emeritus of Rutgers University’s Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Policy Center. “If governors are to have authority over projects in their own states, you wouldn’t need a bi-state authority. I understand each state has its own priorities, but the Port Authority was created to meet the transportation needs of the region, not of individual states.

Robins and other transportation advocates said disclosure of the alleged Christie-Cuomo deal shows that it is not enough for the Legislature to approve Weinberg’s bill making the Port Authority subject to public records laws.

Comprehensive reform is needed, they said, to enable the agency’s commissioners and staff to plan for the region’s transportation needs without improper political interference by the two states’ governors – an issue addressed in legislation introduced by Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) last week.

It was Weinberg who seized upon Cuomo’s disclosure at a press conference last week that he and Christie had agreed in a conversation last year that “each would take responsibility for the Port Authority’s assets in his own state,” rather than relying on the expertise of the bi-state agency set up to oversee regional transportation projects.

The New York governor cited the deal with Christie as justification for his announcement that he -- and not the Port Authority’s airport division -- would be overseeing the competition to redesign the Port Authority’s Kennedy and LaGuardia airports, The New York Times reported.

Weinberg, who is co-chairing the Joint Select Committee on Investigation that is probing Bridgegate and other Port Authority controversies said yesterday she was awaiting a response from Cuomo to her demand for an explanation of the secret arrangement he reached with Christie.

She characterized the reported agreement as “disturbing,” and said greater transparency and accountability are needed so “we can protect against division of this agency."

Indeed, while approval by Congress and the New Jersey and New York legislatures would be needed to break up the Port Authority -- an idea that both Christie and Cuomo publicly floated last month -- the apparent pact between the two governors appears to give them what they want on a short-term basis without having to go through what would be a political and legal nightmare.

“The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was created by an interstate compact in 1921 in order to oversee the region’s transportation infrastructure and thereby strengthen the region’s economy,” Weinberg noted in an October 22 letter she sent to Cuomo, with copies to Christie and Port Authority Chairman John Degnan.

“This alleged agreement exposes the Port Authority to the very influences it was designed to be insulated from, patronage demands and short-term political pressures,” she complained. “Unilateral action by either Governor, in the best interest of his own state, jeopardizes the interests of the region and results in important projects like the Port Authority Bus Terminal falling by the wayside.”

Christie administration officials did not respond to emailed questions about Weinberg’s letter and the alleged deal described by Cuomo.

Jameson W. Doig, the Princeton University professor who wrote the definitive history of the Port Authority], expressed dismay over Cuomo’s disclosure.

“Cuomo is now following Christie’s lead in trying to take control over projects and over the use of money that should be under the Port Authority,” said Doig, adding that Cuomo’s staff does not have the professional expertise to make critical decisions on the redesign of Kennedy and LaGuardia airports.

He noted that Cuomo at least is focusing on projects within the Port Authority’s jurisdiction, while Christie has pressed to put Port Authority money into the Pulaski Skyway – a project that does not fall within the Port Authority region and whose propriety is under investigation by both the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of Manhattan] – as well as into local parks and the takeover of the far-off Atlantic City Airport.

“Cuomo’s approach is disappointing,” Doig said. “He was passive for most of the last four years with regard to the Port Authority and let Christie do whatever he wanted to do, and now he is becoming active and stumbling. This is an ad hoc deal by the governors that seems to have emerged based on their ability to threaten the Port Authority with their veto power if the Port Authority commissioners don’t do what they want them to do.”

Like Robins and Doig, Cathleen Lewis, director of public affairs and legislative relations for AAA New Jersey, agreed that major reform legislation is needed to “make sure that politicians don’t abuse their authority over the agency, and to ensure that the toll money we pay goes to pay for the transportation infrastructure it is supposed to support.”

AAA New Jersey and AAA New York have been in court seeking an injunction barring the imposition of the next-to-last stage of a four-year increase in Port Authority tolls from $8 to $15 for motorists using the agency’s six trans-Hudson bridges and tunnels.

The controversial toll increase was masterminded and rushed through by David Wildstein, Christie’s political operative at the Port Authority, who engineered a scheme to make it look like Christie and Cuomo were surprised by the toll hikes, which they knew about all along.

Lewis, Robins and Doig all endorsed legislation sponsored by Weinberg and Assemblywoman Valerie Vaineri-Huttle (D-Bergen) with strong Republican support that would impose strict transparency and accountability standards on the Port Authority, including making the agency fully subject to the public record disclosure laws of both states. The bill, which has already passed both the state Senate and both houses of the New York State Legislature, is expected to pass the Assembly next month and be signed into law by Christie.

But all three agreed that further reforms are needed, including several key provisions that were included in the Wisniewski bill.

“This is an agency that is in desperate need of top-to-bottom reform in almost every aspect of its structure and operation,” Wisniewski said in unveiling his legislation last Thursday. “We have been given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to remake this agency from the ground up and it is essential to our transportation and economic futures that we get it right.”

Doig noted that the Wisniewski bill has already been pronounced “dead on arrival” by key Senate Democrats because they believe Christie and Cuomo would never go along with giving their states’ legislatures the power to directly appoint four of the agency’s 12 commissioners.

In fact, Doig himself believes the change would further politicize governance of the Port Authority, even though it would lessen the control of the governors, who currently appoint all 12 commissioners.

Doig also thinks the governors would not go along with Wisniewski’s provision to take away their power to veto any Port Authority action.

But Robins and Doig specifically endorsed Wisniewski’s proposal to have the Port Authority board select its own chair and vice chair -- one from each state -- based on qualifications rather than giving the New Jersey governor the right to appoint the chair and the New York governor the vice-chair.

They also backed Wisniewski’s plan to have the Port Authority board conduct a national search for a professional executive director, and to allow that CEO to appoint one or several deputy directors with the approval of the Port Authority board, rather than having the New York governor appoint the executive director and the New Jersey governor the deputy executive director.

“That goes to the most important problem at the Port Authority – the Hatfields and McCoys syndrome that Governor Christie has talked about,” Robins noted.

In an effort to insulate the executive director from the vicissitudes of New Jersey and New York politics, Wisniewski’s bill recommends giving the Port Authority chief a five-year term that would overlap the two states’ four-year gubernatorial election cycles.

Whether state legislatures get to appoint commissioners or not, Robins said, Wisniewski’s provision making the Port Authority responsible and responsive to the legislatures is critical. “We need to formalize that relationship,” he said. “There should never be a time when Port Authority officials are asked to come down to testify before the Legislature and refuse to come.”

Lewis and Doig both focused on the importance of requiring the Port Authority to hold more public hearings on different days prior to enacting toll increases. Wisniewski's bill would require at least 10 public hearings – with one or more in each affected New Jersey and New York county -- at least 60 days before adopting any toll or fare hike. The bill would also require the executive director and at least two commissioners from each state to attend every hearing, and that half of the hearings be held in the evening so commuters can attend. When the last toll hike was approved in 2011, all of the hearings were held on the same day during regular work hours, and the hearings were packed with unionized building-trades workers supportive of the toll increases.

Robins suggested going beyond the provisions of Wisniewski’s proposed legislation to establish an Office of the Tollpayer Advocate within the Port Authority -- similar to the Office of the Ratepayer Advocate, which has the legal standing to protect the interests of consumers at utility rate increase hearings before the state Board of Public Utilities.

“As the AAA lawsuit shows, we really need to do more to safeguard the public interest,” Robins said. “This is an idea that has been kicking around for a while, and it has merit.”

Lewis also expressed general support for Wisniewski’s call for the Port Authority to adhere to its principal mission of meeting the transportation needs of the Port region, defined as that area within a 25-mile radius of the Statue of Liberty, by building and maintaining high-quality bridge, tunnel, road, port and airport facilities.

That focus echoes AAA New Jersey’s proposed Toll Payer’s Bill of Rights, which specifically urges that “revenues generated from taxes, fees, and other pricing mechanisms paid by motorists must be dedicated solely to meeting identified transportation needs and protected from diversion to other uses,” Lewis noted.

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