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Transportation Experts Urge Bistate Blue-Ribbon Panel to Fix Port Authority

Robins, Doig say Assembly GOP plan ignores lesson of Bridgegate by giving governors too much power

Martin Robins
Martin E. Robins, director emeritus of Rutgers University's Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Policy Institute.

Calling for the creation of a bistate commission to reform the embattled Port Authority, two of New Jersey’s leading transportation policy experts yesterday said legislation proposed by Assembly Republicans ignores the lessons of Bridgegate by giving too much power to the state’s governors.

Martin E. Robins, director emeritus of Rutgers University’s Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Policy Institute, and Jameson W. Doig, author of the definitive history of the Port Authority, endorsed Assembly Republican proposals to enhance ethics, transparency, and financial disclosure at the Port Authority.

But Robins and Doig both sharply criticized the logic of the main reform the GOP legislators proposed to protect the agency from political interference.

“I agree with the Assembly Republicans that the Port Authority needs a single line of command and not an executive director appointed by the governor of one state and a deputy executive director appointed by the other,” said Robins. “But requiring the governors of both states to sign off on the appointment of all director-level employees is a wrong-headed idea. We should be thinking of ways to tamp down gubernatorial control, not increase it.”

Doig, a former Princeton University professor whose Empire on the Hudson is the definitive history of the Port Authority, agreed that it would be “a bad idea to let the governors review the selection of lower-level executives. It would make it more likely that the governors would horse-trade: “I get my guy here, and you get the next one.’ It’s an awful idea.”

The proposal to give the governors veto power over director-level appointments at the Port Authority was one of a series of recommendations for reform issued yesterday by Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union) and the four GOP Assembly members of the Joint Select Committee on Investigation, which is probing the Bridgegate scandal.

But Robins and Doig asserted that an independent review of the Port Authority by a blue-ribbon commission made up of leading transportation policy experts from both New Jersey and New York is needed, rather than having each state enact its own legislation.

Greater Transparency

Under the leadership of Democratic Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, New York state enacted sweeping reforms in 2009 designed to “end the secrecy” at its authorities, but the reforms did not apply to the Port Authority because New Jersey did not enact the same legislation, Robins noted. Similarly, any New Jersey legislation would not apply to the Port Authority if New York’s governor and legislature did not follow suit.

“What we really need here is not just a quick dashing off of legislative points, but the forging of a bistate consensus that can only come from states really wrestling with what needs to happen here,” Robins said. “The states should form a bistate commission with a mixture of legislators and civic leaders to propose reforms, and the most important thing is that current and future governors should be required to abide by the principles that come out of that process.”

Doig said the independent review panel should include experts like former Port Authority Executive Directors Peter Goldmark and Steven Berger, who served in the 1980s and 1990s before political interference grew rampant at the bistate agency, as well as respected former Port Authority commissioners who understand the inner workings of the agency.

What is needed, Doig and Robins agreed, is to restore the professional independence of the Port Authority, not create a new system that vests even more -- albeit shared -- patronage power in the governors of New York and New Jersey.

“We have to put an end to the custom that New York appoints the Port Authority executive director and New Jersey the chairman,” Robin said. “It’s outmoded and unhelpful. The 12 commissioners should be independent of the governors and they should select the most worthy commissioner to serve as chairman. The executive director should be chosen by a national search through the world of public administration.”

What the Assembly Republican plan did not really address, Robins said, was the issue of patronage.

Doig agreed. “If you want to see how serious the Port Authority is about reform, the question you should ask is how far they got in getting rid of the 60 patronage appointees put in by Chris Christie,” said Doig, who is now teaching government at Dartmouth College.

The Bridgegate scandal has consumed the Christie’s governorship in the six weeks since the governor acknowledged that Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Kelly directed the shutdown of toll lanes leading into the George Washington Bridge for four days in apparent retaliation against Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor for refusing to endorse Christie for reelection.

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