Into the Deep with the Port Authority

Patrick J. Foye.
Via The Observer

This much we know: On October 20, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey confirmed Patrick J. Foye on Governor Cuomo’s recommendation to be the new executive director of the bi-state agency overseeing a 2011 budget of $7.2 billion with $3.9 billion in capital spending. We also know that Foye is a Skadden Arps (“recovering” in his own words) lawyer with Long Island Republican roots who spent less than 15 months as the downstate chairman of the Empire State Development Corporation under Eliot Spitzer and more recently was Cuomo’s deputy secretary for economic development.

We also realize that out-going PA executive director Chris Ward, who two months ago was the hero-du-jour for getting stalled projects at the World Trade Center up and building smoothly enough to pull off the 9/11 decennial, is currently serving as an all-round scapegoat for the cost overruns associated with that achievement. An audit begun on September 30 promises to thoroughly finish the job of tarnishing his legacy.

That the Port Authority is an unwieldy bureaucratic behemoth should come as little surprise; it manages the ports for two states, five airports, two tunnels, four bridges, a commuter railroad, a small police force, and a major planning agency. Established by Congress in 1921, the PA was a fiscal sinkhole until 1931 when it took over the Holland Tunnel. Even Robert Moses considered it an intimidating adversary of labyrinthine complexity and impenetrable means.

A recent opinion piece in the New York Post written by former PA executive director (1995–1997) George J. Marlin described an agency of career turf-fighting bureaucrats admitting little accountability to directors who come and go (on average at a 2.5 year clip) eager to get capital construction projects going before they have been appropriately planned because “once construction starts it’s almost impossible to stop.” Bluntly, Marlin also wrote: “PA employees are political animals who view the executive director and the governors they serve as meddling interlopers, and will fight to the death to protect their power, perks and pensions.” (Pensions apparently include lifetime guarantees of annual salaries ranging from $125,000 to $196,000.)

Knowing this casts a pall on Cuomo’s latest suggestion that the murky Port Authority amass even more responsibility by taking charge of the Moynihan Station Development and the LMDC. And while it’s good news that Cuomo is trying to redirect attention to the no-brainer but somehow long-idling Moynihan Station, it seems too early to think of LMDC as winding down, as Senator Charles Schumer put it in commending the consolidation. With a majority of the site still incomplete and unrealized—the board of the mega-performance center by Frank Gehry won’t even be announced until the end of the year, there’s miles to go before either State or City can let up their guard. In fact, even as I write, Bloomberg’s people and the Governor’s people are wrangling over who’s going to pay for all the security at the site; the City said it always assumed the PA had the money.

Foye is known to be a bit of a number cruncher and, according to a press release from the agency’s chairman of commissioners, his job will be to “re-prioritize future construction to limit money-losing projects and identify new revenue sources besides the region’s residents and businesses.” At the same time, Cuomo calls the PA: “a major economic engine that plans for the region and attracts business on an international scale.”

So let’s get this straight. The mandate is to keep costs in check at the same time as making a splash? Sounds like Foye has his work cut out for him. Then again, there’s always the $3.4 billion-and-counting transportation hub by Calatrava. Renting it out for wedding receptions could be just the ticket to having it both ways.

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