Opinion: Big and Small Thinking at the Port Authority

Dick Zimmer | January 10, 2014 | Opinion, Politics
What causes “abject stupidity” and why do grand ideas work out badly?

Dick Zimmer
The reason I believe Gov. Chris Christie will survive the Bridgegate controversy is that he is too smart to have directed or encouraged what he accurately called the “abject stupidity” of September’s lane closings on the George Washington Bridge, apparently instigated by his two top appointees at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and by his deputy chief of staff.

The Record’s Charles Stile compares Bridgegate to the Watergate burglary that brought down Richard Nixon.

That comparison is ridiculous because Watergate began with a break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, clearly a big-time target. In contrast, the intended victim of the lane closures was one Mark Sokolich, the Democratic mayor of the medium-sized borough of Fort Lee, who was purportedly being punished for not endorsing the governor’s reelection. This is a man who Charlie Stile himself probably couldn’t have identified before he began appearing on TV and whose endorsement of Christie, if it had occurred, would have been packaged in a press release with a dozen other endorsements and would have influenced only a handful of votes.

It has been said that politics among academics are so vicious because the stakes are so low. The insignificance of the stakes is the only explanation I can think of for the idiotic decision to lower the boom on Mayor Sokolich by initiating a very public traffic jam.

The Bridgegate revelations have led Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman and former Democratic State Chairman John Wisniewski to declare that he is shocked, shocked to find that the Port Authority’s “entire apparatus is utilized for political purposes.”

Of course Chairman Wisniewski knows that for generations the Board of Commissioners of the Port Authority has been full of high-powered political fundraisers and its top executive positions have been staffed by skilled political operatives. This is ironic because the Port Authority was a product of the Progressive Era and its belief that big public enterprises should be insulated from the political process so they can be managed by experts instead of corruptible politicians. The Port Authority surely has a dedicated corps of career professionals that keep its facilities humming. But the policies promoted by its top echelons have been highly political, and often wrong.

The Port Authority’s initial decision to build the World Trade Center involved a colossal misapplication of commuter tolls to build a vanity project instigated by David and Nelson Rockefeller. Instead of becoming a magnet for international corporations as originally intended, the World Trade Center became a white elephant that could find few tenants except government agencies. The glut of government-subsidized office space ended up depressing the entire Lower Manhattan commercial real estate market for several years and became one of the most persuasive arguments against socialism.

After 9/11, the process of replacing the destroyed Twin Towers was a hideously messy and prolonged affair that resulted in the construction of the most expensive building in the world, unlikely ever to pay for itself.

Bridgegate has also prompted the Senate State Government Committee to pass a resolution listing at great length the misdeeds of the Port Authority during the Christie Administration and urging Congress to find ways to “to increase accountability and transparency”– in other words, to make an agency deliberately created to be insulated from democratic politics more responsive to the great unwashed.

The prime sponsor of this resolution is Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen). It is interesting that one of the Legislature’s most prominent progressives is leading the effort to partially dismantle one of the great artifacts of the Progressive Era.