Beleaguered Authority Favored for $20 Billion Tunnel Plan

Updated on
  • Agency called 'patronage pit' has record of delays, overruns
  • Trans-Hudson rail commuters at least 15 years from new tubes

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is still recovering from the 2013 traffic-jam scandal that led to top-level resignations and investigations. It’s two years behind on raising the Bayonne Bridge, has no plans to replace its obsolete Manhattan bus terminal, and bills to overhaul its management structure have stalled.

Now, the federal government must decide whether to entrust it with Gateway, a new commuter-rail tunnel under the Hudson River that President Barack Obama’s administration says is the most pressing U.S. infrastructure need.

The $20 billion project has been revived as equipment failures on the existing century-old tracks lead to increasing delays along the Northeast Corridor, the nation’s busiest passenger rail route. As federal and state officials negotiate funding, they must also agree on who will lead the work. To lawmakers, the authority’s record should give them pause.

“Before we spend $30 billion on major infrastructure -- that’s a bus terminal plus Gateway -- we damn well ought to make sure there’s transparency and accountability in this organization,” New Jersey Senator Bob Gordon, a Democrat from Fair Lawn and vice chairman of the Transportation Committee, said in an interview.

In 2014, after blocked access to the George Washington Bridge was linked to a plot of political revenge by allies of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, elected officials in both states vowed to reform the troubled authority. Ten months ago, though, Christie, a Republican running for president, and Cuomo, a Democrat -- who appoint the agency’s top officials -- vetoed bills requiring annual authority reports to lawmakers, more accessible public records and a reorganized inspector general’s office.

The governors since have approved a records law, and both support a new management structure, a conflict-of-interest code and a return to a transportation focus and away from real-estate interests. Restructuring can’t happen, though, unless lawmakers and governors approve in both states. Democrats who control New Jersey’s legislature want the reform to go further by requiring quarterly reports on capital plans, independent oversight of large construction projects and giving lawmakers power to question senior officials at public hearings.

“Political leadership on both sides of the river have taken that organization, which used to be a model, and turned it into a patronage pit,” said New Jersey Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Sayreville Democrat and co-chairman of a legislative panel investigating the traffic jams. “When you see the Port Authority being used for political payback or gain, it does give you pause for concern on where money will be spent.”

Trials Loom

David Wildstein, a former authority executive, is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty on May 1 to conspiracy, admitting in federal court in Newark that the jams were to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat who didn’t support Christie’s re-election bid. Two others indicted in the plot -- Bill Baroni, the governor’s appointee as Port Authority deputy executive director, and Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff in Christie’s office -- pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial.

David Samson, a Christie confidant and appointee as Port Authority chairman, also resigned in the scandal’s aftermath. Jeff Smisek, chief executive officer of United Continental Holdings Inc., was ousted on Sept. 8 after an internal United probe of possible political favors at the authority, which controls the New York area’s major airports. Investigators are reviewing the origins of a United route called “the chairman’s flight” between Newark Liberty International Airport and Columbia Metropolitan Airport in South Carolina, where Samson’s wife owns a home.

“The Port Authority as an organization has lost the public’s trust -- they’re very far from regaining it,” said New Jersey Assemblywoman Amy Handlin, a Republican from Middletown who is part of the legislative committee investigating the traffic jams. “I won’t let up on the pressure to have more reforms signed into law.”

One Port Authority project, the transportation hub at the World Trade Center in Manhattan, is costing about $4 billion, twice what was estimated. Another, the Bayonne Bridge, is running two years behind, the authority announced last month. Though the Port Authority Bus Terminal, the world’s busiest bus depot, has been operating over capacity for almost 50 years, its 10-year capital plan doesn’t include a replacement.

Christie Cancellation

Gateway, proposed by Amtrak, the national railroad, is an alternative to Access to the Region’s Core, a New Jersey Transit project that had federal backing and would have opened as soon as 2019. Christie canceled that $12.4 billion tunnel in 2010, citing design issues and potential cost overruns. Critics say he killed the tunnel so he could use the money to avoid raising the gasoline tax and boost his presidential prospects.

In addition to a tunnel, Gateway includes upgrades to New York’s Pennsylvania Station, expanded track capacity and replacement of a 105-year-old bridge over New Jersey’s Hackensack River. It will finish in 2030 at the earliest.

Jameson Doig, a Dartmouth University visiting research professor who chronicled the Port Authority’s nexus of professional expertise, money and political influence in “Empire on the Hudson,” a 2002 history, said Gateway would expose the agency to more pressure.

“The Port Authority has the engineering and planning skills to do a very good job, but these abilities are going to be stretched thin by other commitments,” Doig said by e-mail. “Also, the two governors have shown an inclination to interfere with the PA’s planning, and to siphon off funds to help their own pet projects, so that is a risk that could undermine any PA effort.”

Brian Murray, a spokesman for Christie, said the governor has confidence in the professional staff and that the authority is “well-suited as a leading regional transportation agency to head up these efforts.” The agency, he said in an e-mail, is adopting changes as recommended by a panel commissioned by both governors. Pending legislation would strengthen ethics rules and increase public scrutiny, he said.

Beth DeFalco, a spokeswoman for Cuomo, didn’t respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

“We know how to build a tunnel,” Christie and Cuomo wrote to Obama in a Sept. 15 letter that pitched a state and federal cost share for Gateway. They supported a suggestion by U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York, to create “a dedicated staff and an entity within the Port Authority” to take the lead.

Ron Marsico, a spokesman for the Port Authority, said the agency has been on time and within budget on recent projects, including a deck replacement on the George Washington Bridge and runway reconstructions at John F. Kennedy and Newark airports.

Craig Schulz, an Amtrak spokesman, said the railroad has worked on the proposal since 2010 “with the understanding that it could only be fully realized through the partnership between Amtrak and various stakeholders and beneficiaries.” The proposal to put the Port Authority in charge, he said in an e-mail, is “one of many ideas that will shape the conversation.”

No Comfort

While the governors referred to a $20 billion figure, with the cost split between state and federal governments, Amtrak says the cost is in flux and dependent on environmental reviews, design and other factors. Past estimates have run from $14 billion to $16 billion.

Some lawmakers say they can’t back Gateway until they have a better idea of funding breakdowns.

“You hear numbers from all over and that does not give cause for comfort when the agency being considered to run the project still hasn’t disclosed a consistent estimate for the cost,” said New York Senator Andrew Lanza, a Staten Island Republican. “It shouldn’t fall under the present Port Authority.”

New York state Senator Liz Krueger, a Democrat from Manhattan, said that though Gateway is in early planning stages, it should be incentive to fix management and transparency issues.

“Historically, the Port Authority has actually been the correct place to do big, multistate, national-implication infrastructure projects,” Krueger said. “You don’t need to reinvent the wheel.”

(A previous version of this story contained an incorrect completion date for the ARC.) 

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