Politics and the NY-NJ Port Authority

The scandal over the intentional creation of bridge traffic jams by flunkies of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has cast an unflattering spotlight on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

While investigators ask who knew what about last September’s George Washington Bridge fiasco, criticism is being aimed at the port authority, whose infrastructure portfolio includes bridges, tunnels, airports and the bistate seaport, along with the World Trade Center and other infrastructure.

An editorial in the Bergen Record, which with the Wall Street Journal has led coverage of the bridge scandal, said the port authority “has become an unwieldy political patronage mill.” The Record editorial asked what the port authority’s board members had been doing the last four months (a valid question), and said all 12 should resign.

Peter Goldmark, the port authority’s CEO from 1977 to 1985, says the bridge incident demonstrates the bistate agency’s increased politicization. In an op-ed column in the Long Island newspaper Newsday, he said the Christie aides’ traffic-control directive showed who’s calling the shots at the port authority.

“Where is the chain of command?” Goldmark asked. “How is the port authority being run if someone can receive such an order and act on it without reporting to the agency's executive director? What does that say about how the authority is managed?”

Goldmark said that during the last two decades the agency has become a patronage roost that governors have used to reward political allies. He said he had been told by former port authority staff that Christie has referred as many as 50 people to be hired by the agency.

“It is common knowledge inside the port authority that there are two people for some functions that used to be performed by one person reporting up through a single chain of command to the executive director. And there is concern within the agency about the number and lack of qualifications of people being appointed to positions at the request of the New Jersey governor's office,” Goldmark wrote.

Journal of Commerce coverage of the port authority has generally steered clear of the agency’s politics, which mainly are of parochial interest. But we’ve devoted a lot of space to following developments at the seaport, the busiest on the U.S. East Coast.

For years the New York-New Jersey seaport has seemed something of a stepchild within the port authority. Though the port authority has invested more than $2.5 billion in seaport-related improvements in the last decade, the port’s needs often take a back seat to the agency’s other activities. An example that immediately comes to mind is the port authority’s bridge toll increases, which raised trucking costs and threatened the New York Container Terminal’s survival before a deal was worked out last year to rebate the toll increases for trucks using the Staten Island terminal.

The seaport has attracted increased port authority attention in recent months. Severe congestion plagued container terminals through much of 2013 and has flared up in the opening days of this year. In response, the port authority has organized a broad-based industry task force to find solutions.

So amid the other questions surrounding the bridge scandal, there’s this one: Will the uproar affect the task force’s efforts? My bet is it won’t. The port authority’s seaport executives and staff are competent, hardworking professionals. Look for them to do their jobs, and to try to ignore the nonsense happening upstairs.

Contact Joseph Bonney at jbonney@joc.com and follow him on Twitter at @JosephBonney.

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