THE BLOG
01/11/2014 05:51 pm ET Updated Mar 13, 2014

Collateral Damage at the Port Authority

The strange case of Governor Chris Christie and the George Washington Bridge may reveal just how far the mighty have fallen. I don't mean the governor and his vaunted political operation. Rather, a lesson in the decline and fall of one of the nation's great builders and managers of critical public assets.

For decades the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PA) was admired and imitated around the globe. But now, thanks to the Fort Lee traffic caper, the agency is well on its way to becoming just another Jersey joke. How did it come to this?

To find an answer you have to roll back the clock to 1972 when, after thirty years at the helm, Austin Tobin retired as operating head of the agency. Few could have imagined at the time that the departure of Tobin, respected by political leaders in both parties for his independence and professionalism, would open the door to increasing intervention by politicians from both states. It didn't happen overnight. Perhaps the first stage involved the growing gap between the states' resources and expenditures. The annual budget crises had states scrambling to find the money to balance their budgets. Whatever would get the governors and state legislators through the night became fair game -- including the revenues of "independent" agencies.

The Port Authority was something, apparently, that a new generation of politicians could not quite grasp -- an institution designed especially to be insulated to some extent from the short-term policies of Albany and Trenton. Instead, they saw the PA as a kind of honey pot of money and jobs that cried out to be divvied up as soon as possible. The idea that preservation of the PA's independent financial capacity would enable the agency to take on long-term, expensive and complicated public projects just seemed outside their notions of what a cash strapped state could and should do.

Both states were overwhelmingly "successful" in rearranging the PA's cash flow to divert large sums to their coffers. But the changes didn't stop there. Not so long ago, the notion that the states governors' offices would fill agency jobs based on politics would have sounded ridiculous. What was the point of the agency, if not to insulate it from short-term politics and patronage? Even the notion that New York automatically gets to pick the executive director and New Jersey selects the chairman is a relatively recent phenomenon.

My own experience as commissioner and chairman of the PA is revealing. I am a staunch Democrat but a New Jersey Republican governor, Tom Kean, appointed me. During his first term, Kean also kept in place as chairman of the agency Alan Sagner, another hard core Democrat. The staff of the agency then was composed of almost all career professionals. In later years, giving top jobs to political appointees must have had the effect of stunting the career growth of those same professionals. Why knock yourself out for the PA if the best jobs were going to go to those who knocked themselves out for gubernatorial candidates?

But by the mid '90s the new world of the rich potential patronage of the PA's top jobs proved irresistible to governors on both sides of the Hudson. The process was simple: "You got one, I get the next one." Looking back, the old Port Authority was the product of a more optimistic time.

What does all this have to do with Governor Christie's current embarrassment? Well, it is simply inconceivable that the professional staff of the past would have executed an order from the governor's office to tie up traffic at the George Washington Bridge. To carry out missions of this type a governor needs his own people in place at the PA, an acquiescent board and a cynical public, which will take such pettiness as simply politics as usual.

We may never know the true motivation for the ugly attempt to strangle Fort Lee's traffic, but we must face up to the fact that changes in the agency made such a caper possible. The PA was far from perfect in the "good old" days: it could be hard-headed and unresponsive and it probably leaned too far in the direction of independent action. But I'll bet this morning, Governor Christie would take that PA over the situation he's got in a New York minute.

Richard C. Leone