Schumer assumes the mantle of Port Authority reform

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On Monday, just two days before the Port Authority turns 93 years old, Sen. Chuck Schumer became the highest ranking official to publicly decry the politicization of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and propose resuscitating the agency by reforming it.

"Increasingly, the Port Authority has been resorting to the Tammany Hall-style behavior it was created to rise above: patronage, opacity, and political expediency," said Schumer, speaking to a small crowd of real estate executives and Port Authority reformers at Viacom's Times Square headquarters. "More frequently now than ever, the Port Authority has come to be seen as the proverbial honey pot, a cookie jar, a rainy-day fund—whatever metaphor you prefer—for state projects outside the Port's core mission."

During the senior senator's 45-minute speech, he hailed the Port Authority's once hallowed history, decried its turn for the worse, and proposed some reforms to the 1921 compact that created the Port Authority in the first place.

He was also grasping a ripe political moment.

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"The winds of reform are increasing," he said.

Ever since it came to light that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's staff and Port Authority political appointees manipulated traffic on the George Washington Bridge in an apparent act of political retribution, demands to reform the bistate infrastructure agency have grown deafening.

Last week, a post-Bridgegate Port Authority reform committee even held a public hearing where commissioners listened in seemingly attentive fashion as reformers described ways to rescue the dysfunctional, patronage-larded agency from the political whims of the New Jersey and New York governors who control it.

One of those governors, Andrew Cuomo, has called for seizing more control over New York's airports from the Port Authority, but hasn't said much else.

The other governor, Chris Christie, whose staff's actions precipitated this crisis, has been outright disdainful.

Nevertheless, today, Schumer said that he hoped the governors' appointees on the Port Authority board would do more than just tinker with the agency's bylaws, and instead embrace some version of his reform platform, even if that platform entails diminishing the governors' own power over the agency. He said if the commissioners shared some semblance of his vision for the Port, he would then champion the reform of the federal compact that authorizes the bistate agency in Congress.

"We need reform that will last, not just the quick and evanescent response to Bridgegate, which after all was a symptom, not a cause of the Port Authority's dysfunction," he said.

Among other things, Schumer's plan calls for the Port Authority commissioners to name an executive director to run the agency's operations, rather than have the New York governor pick that person, as tradition dictates.

He also wants that executive director to have "full managerial authority." The existing management structure of the Port Authority is so muddled that the sitting executive director, Pat Foye, wasn't aware that his deputy executive director, the Christie-appointee Bill Baroni, was engineering the closure of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge that spawned Bridgegate.

He also said the board that should select its own chairman, rather than have New Jersey governor do it, as precedent would have it, and that neither governor should have veto power over the Port's decisions.

Schumer described the existing management structure as "incoherent ... one that stifles vision and long-term thinking and defies leadership" and fosters "tribalism."

Also on the Schumer Port reform agenda: board commissioners with relevant experience in, say, engineering or finance, more detailed multi-year financial and capital planning, and a move away from the non-revenue-generating projects that have diverted the agency from its "core" mission: bi-state infrastructure.

"The Pulaski Skyway is neither owned nor in any way operated by the Port Authority," he said. "It's a state road system and its maintenance and redevelopment should be funded as such. Diverting funds from the ARC tunnel to the Pulaski Skyway was the wrong move."

But what about that other one-state Port Authority proposal that's been generating a lot of controversy?

"There are two reasons I think that I would vote today to continue to have the Port do some guarantees for Building 3," he said, referring to 3 World Trade, the Larry Silverstein proto-skyscraper that the developer wants the Port Authority to more deeply backstop. "The first is it's ongoing. The Port Authority is heavily invested in the World Trade Center. ... To now change horses in midstream doesn't seem to me to make such sense. Second, the World Trade Center has some real significance, because it was the heart of America that the terrorists aimed its dagger at. And getting it done without any major change in how we do it to me is really a national imperative."

If Schumer had his druthers, he said he'd rather the Port put its money toward projects like rebuilding the Port Authority bus terminal, creating a direct rail link to Stewart airport in New Windsor, and creating a cross-harbor freight rail tunnel.

Schumer hasn't spoken with either of the two governors who control the Port Authority, though he said he has spoken with "people close to both governors."

Capital asked what possible reason the two governors could have for supporting a plan that would diminish their own power.

"If we don't start reinvesting in our transportation infrastructure, the overall prosperity which this bi-state region has had over the last century will really begin to decline," he said.

Spokesmen from neither Cuomo's nor Christie's nor the Port Authority's press offices responded to requests for comment.

Mayor Bill de Blasio didn't have much to say about it either.

"I will be straightforward and say I think we have to do a lot better in terms of the Port Authority," he said today, when a reporter asked him about Schumer's Port reform effort. "I don't have a particular reform plan that I have yet decided to endorse. I haven't focused a lot on the Port Authority in the scheme of things because of other issues. But I think we can all say that we can certainly do a lot better than what's going on now."

--additional reporting by Sally Goldenberg