There are two distinct changes New York and New Jersey state officials must implement to improve the efficiency -- and fulfill the promise -- of the Port Authority.
- Stop political abuse by either state and sweep out unqualified patronage appointees.
- Restructure the Port Authority to become once again a powerful, professionally run engine of capital investment and economic growth for the country's largest metropolitan region, from modern transportation facilities to a smart electric grid.
To prevent abuse of power, the agency must embrace regular outside reviews so the board and the staff designated by the governors of New York and New Jersey act in the best interests of the region, not in the best interests of statehouse politics. The agency is bursting with patronage appointments. It began to split its senior management into separate New Jersey and New York chains of command two decades ago, which made possible the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal now under investigation.
The agency should consider three potential avenues of outside review to shore up confidence that it's managing assets and investing responsibly. The reviews would be conducted by:
- The New York State comptroller's office: It's an elective office -- independent of the governor -- that has shown it can perform professional audits of Port Authority activities. (New Jersey's comptroller is appointed by the governor.)
- The federal Government Accountability Office: This agency undertakes quality, independent analyses. With minor changes to its mission, it could be authorized to review the operations of the Port Authority, which was created by federal legislation.
- Nonpartisan groups: The authority could commission a review of its practices by independent groups such as the Citizens Budget Commission or Citizens Union. The scrutiny would help the agency transition from its stagnation and impotence.
The second and more difficult change will not happen as a result of external oversight. It's vital for the authority to resume its role as a regional engine of economic growth. That would require leadership by both New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, if he survives allegations made Friday that he knew about the lane closures.
The leadership of the authority itself, the board of commissioners and the executive director, should play a major role in revamping the agency.
The board and the executive director should announce that they will not honor requests by either state to fund routine maintenance or repair projects normally financed by the two states, and that they will not engage in financial high jinks designed to transfer agency money to the state budgets.
The greatest contribution Christie and Cuomo can make to our economic recovery is to allow the agency to invest in large-scale public projects that contribute to regional growth, create jobs, and increase competitiveness and transportation efficiency. The authority should present a long-term plan to Christie and Cuomo to do that.
The board and the executive director also must return the agency to a single, professional chain of command and decide that it will accept no patronage appointees from the two states.
If the board finds such a position too taxing, the executive director, as chief executive, could announce he will institute the changes on his own, and restore the agency as an independent organization serving the region, as foreseen by the original Port Compact of 1921.
It would be instructive to see if he gets fired for that.
Peter Goldmark, a former budget director of New York State, served as executive director of the Port Authority (1977 to 1985). He is a former publisher of the International Herald Tribune and headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund.