Panel Makes Recommendations for Port Authority Changes

By Michael Aron
Chief Political Correspondent

To hear this morning’s experts tell it, the problems at the Port Authority stem from bi-state rivalry that itself springs from the custom of which governor appoints which officer.

“We have this tradition now that the chair is from New Jersey and the vice-chair is from New York. What about having them rotate every two years or so?” asked Carol Kellerman, president of the Manhattan-based Citizens Budget Commission.

“The decision about the selection of the executive director should be left to the board and not to a governor,” said Martin Robins, a transportation expert at Rutgers University and former Port Authority planning director.

This was a meeting of the Port Authority board’s new oversight committee.

The leading historian of the Port said after seven decades of independence, politicization at the agency set in during the 1990s.

“In 1995, Gov. Pataki broke this tradition of professional selection of executive directors by demanding that a friend of his who had been important in his recent election be chosen as executive director. Gov. Christie Whitman was outraged,” explained Jameson Doig, author of Empire on the Hudson, the definitive history of the Port Authority.

Several argued the two governors need to take a lighter hand.

Another disagreed.

“Let’s be serious. The governors have always been involved in the Port Authority. This is a fabrication by the previous speakers. Nelson Rockefeller is responsible for the World Trade Center. Gov. Richard Hughes is responsible for the Port Authority taking over the PATH. Those were important governors. We should not says governors should be disengaged,” Mitchell Moss of the Rudin Center for Transportation at New York University said.

In recent years, the governors have placed more and more of their political allies in jobs at the Port Authority.

“Governors from both parties, of both states have played this game of patronage, a word we don’t hear an awful lot any longer. At least on this side of the Hudson we don’t hear it that often,” said Robert Yaro, head of the Regional Plan Association, a transportation planning group.

Acting Chairman Scott Rechler of New York said the time is right to attack what he called creeping dysfunction at the agency.

But most of the testimony was supportive.

“To quote Winston Churchill and transmogrify to the Port Authority context, the regional compact that governs the Port is the worst way to run it except for all the others,” Kellerman said.

Gov. Christie has talked about splitting the agency in half.

“I’m particularly intrigued by the idea of dismantling the Port Authority operations. From under one roof to two,” said Christie.

No one at the meeting embraced that.

There was a lot of respect for the Port Authority in that room today. The consensus seemed to be the beleaguered agency needs some tinkering, but, please, all you reformers out there, don’t overreact.