Prying Open the Port Authority
June 24, 2007
The Twenties were just starting to roar when New York and New Jersey agreed to quit feuding over their mutual waterway, the one with the Statue of Liberty in its center. The two state governments created what is now called the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The treaty gave each governor the right to appoint half the agency’s board members.
Since then, this strange organizational bird has been running the port, and over time has taken on the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, the George Washington Bridge, various bus terminals, and the Newark, La Guardia, Kennedy and Teterboro airports. The authority, which also owned the World Trade Center, now controls most of the complicated downtown reconstruction project, including the Calatrava PATH station, the memorial, the Freedom Tower and the foundations for other skyscrapers.
Nevertheless, any agency that answers to two states too easily answers to nobody. And for years, this enormous authority with its $5 billion budget has operated in the shadows — its public business considered too important for the public to know much about.
After Sept. 11, those running the authority started to change. Anthony Coscia, the new chairman as of 2003, began working to make open up the meetings and to de-mystify the authority’s day-to-day business operations. But a problem remains. Mr. Coscia holds his job by appointment, and what is done by the chairman can just as easily be undone by a less public-spirited successor.
Gov. Eliot Spitzer of New York and Gov. Jon Corzine of New Jersey took a good first step toward reform last week, calling on the port to revise its bylaws to make its business more understandable to its millions of customers.
Their proposal would require more open meetings and more transparent contracting and planning. Typically, in the past, a very expensive construction project would appear as one lump sum on the agenda. Now the public would be allowed to comment on item-by-item expenses, and for the first time would be able to see who is being awarded contracts and where the money is going.
The new bylaws would also be designed to bar “inappropriate lobbying” of the authority, while other rules would tighten codes of ethics and governance in an effort, among other things, to prevent commissioners from passing along contracts to business or family connections.
This is all very worthwhile. As Mr. Coscia put it: “The important thing now is that we need public confidence because of all the big projects we are working on. We have to establish that we can’t be working in some dark closet where nobody knows what happens.”
These changes should help open the doors and let the sunlight in. If they do not, the only recourse would seem to be to persuade both the New York and New Jersey legislatures to agree on the same reform language.
That would be a heavy lift even for these two high-octane governors.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company