With New Jersey Governor Chris Christie mired in scandal after disclosures that his aides may have engineered a George Washington Bridge traffic jam as political payback, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is taking a bigger role at the agency at the controversy’s heart.
Cuomo will appoint a committee to take over management of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s construction projects at LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy International airports, according to a person familiar with the plan who requested anonymity because it isn’t public.
Christie, 51, a Republican, and Cuomo, a 56-year-old Democrat, share control of the Port Authority, with the New Jersey governor appointing its chairman and the New York governor picking its executive director. Yet since taking office in 2011, Cuomo has preferred to let Christie’s appointees direct operations, said Jameson Doig, author of “Empire on the Hudson,” a 2002 history of the agency.
“What’s happened in the last couple of years is that Governor Christie has had a great interest in the Port Authority, mainly to put his friends and political supporters in there,” said Doig, a government professor at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. “Governor Cuomo has largely just spent his time on other things.”
The bridge scandal has cast a spotlight on the 93-year-old agency, which runs the New York City area’s three major airports, four bridges, a bus terminal, commuter rail, two tunnels, ports and the World Trade Center redevelopment. It has an operating budget of about $3.5 billion, about the same as Nebraska’s general fund. A 2012 audit of cost overruns at the World Trade Center site called it a “challenged and dysfunctional organization.”
The scandal has former executives and trade groups saying the authority has become a captive of politics at the expense of maintaining crucial infrastructure for the biggest U.S. metropolitan area.
Since taking office in 2010, Christie has recommended 50 people to the 6,800-employee agency, including several in top posts, according to a 2012 report by The Record newspaper.
David Wildstein, a former political blogger who went to high school with the governor, was appointed director of interstate capital projects with a $150,000 salary. Bill Baroni, a former Republican state senator and friend of Christie, was named deputy executive director. David Samson, a former New Jersey attorney general who led Christie’s transition committee, was appointed chairman.
Responding to the Record article, Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said personnel changes at the agency were “ordinary” when new governors take office.
Baroni and Wildstein have resigned. Wildstein ordered the closing of access lanes to the bridge from Sept. 9 to Sept. 13, leading to gridlocked traffic in Fort Lee, a town of 37,500 at the foot of the span on the New Jersey side.
“The two governors have to get in a room and say, alright, enough of this crap,” said Stephen Berger, chairman of New York-based Odyssey Investment Partners and a former Port Authority executive director. “We’ve got to run this place like it used to be run. It’s got to stop being a patronage pit.”
Formed by compact between New York and New Jersey with the consent of Congress, the agency was designed to overcome the rivalry between the states over waterfront commerce. It is governed by a 12-member board of commissioners, six appointed by each governor for overlapping six-year terms.
For most of its history, the agency was run by career officials who focused on the infrastructure needs of the metropolitan region, said Doig.
Starting in the 1970s, following the retirement of Austin Tobin, who directed the agency for 30 years, governors used the Port Authority to divert funds to projects outside its central mission, he said.
For example, the agency built an office building in Newark, New Jersey, on the banks of the Passaic River, and its funds were tapped by New York Governor Mario Cuomo, Andrew’s father, to balance the state budget. A Port Authority development bank funded projects such as the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey and a library on 34th Street in Manhattan, Doig said.
In 2010, after Christie killed a proposed $8.7 billion commuter-train tunnel under the Hudson River that would have been funded with $3 billion of Port Authority money, he directed the agency to spend $1.8 billion to rebuild the Pulaski Skyway bridge in North Jersey and for other road improvements.
“There is tension and always has been between New York and New Jersey on the allocation of resources at the Port Authority,” Christie said at a Jan. 9 press conference addressing the bridge scandal. “But the good news for the people of New York and New Jersey is that when those issues have been raised, in the last three years, to my level and Governor Cuomo’s level, we have always, between the two of us, amicably resolved it and been able to move on.”
Federal prosecutors and a joint New Jersey legislative committee are probing the bridge lane closings. E-mails and text messages obtained by news organizations included one from Christie’s deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, to Wildstein. “Time for some traffic problems,” she wrote. He replied: “Got it.”
Wildstein, a former mayor of Livingston, New Jersey, ordered the lanes closed and told agency staff not to tell Fort Lee or other top Port Authority officials about the move. Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, declined to endorse Christie for re-election last year.
The Port Authority’s executive director, Pat Foye, appointed by Cuomo, said he didn’t learn about the closings until late Sept. 12. Robert Durando, the manager of the bridge, didn’t relay his concerns to Foye because he didn’t want to “tempt fate” and lose his job, he testified at a December New Jersey legislative hearing. In the e-mails, Samson exhibited no concern about the impact on Fort Lee’s residents but gave voice to his suspicion that Foye was leaking information to reporters.
“We should do one thing at a time,” Cuomo told reporters on Jan. 18 when asked about the scandal. “Find out exactly what happened here, when, who’s to blame. The second question would then be, if there are procedures that need to be changed, if there are rules that were violated at the Port, then we should look at that.”
As Christie copes with fallout from the scandal, Cuomo is turning his attention to the Port Authority’s airport operations. Last year, JFK, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty International served more than 110 million passengers and handled one third of the nation’s flights. They are also consistently ranked as the worst U.S. airports in delays, design and cleanliness.
Plans to improve the airports have lingered for years, Cuomo said in his Jan. 9 State of the State address. He compared the effort to re-do the airports with his administration’s one-year effort to execute a contract to build a new $3.9 billion replacement for the Tappan Zee Bridge across the Hudson River.
The authority is negotiating with four construction teams to knock down La Guardia’s 1964 terminal and build a new one, which the agency has said could cost about $3.6 billion.
The politicization has taken a toll on agency employees’ morale, said Richard Anderson, president of the New York Building Congress, a trade group representing Aecom Technology Corp, Skanska AB and Parsons Brinckerhoff Inc., which work on projects for the authority.
“The stakes are really high,” Anderson said. “To have people installed who everyone knows are not qualified is very demoralizing.”
Susan Baer, the agency’s aviation director, announced her retirement in May and her position hasn’t been filled permanently. More recently, David Tweedy, chief of capital planning, left. The agency is also without a permanent chief operating officer and permanent director of the Trade Center redevelopment.
Fixing the Port Authority depends on commissioners setting policy and asserting their independence rather than serving as obedient assistants to the governors, Doig said. Governors must allow professional staff to run the agency, said Berger, the former executive director.
“If you can clean it up and put it back to where it was for a long time, it will be harder for the next guy to mess it up,” Berger said. “These two guys can fix it.”