On eve of LaGuardia vote, tension mounts at Port Authority
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is taking a big vote on the redevelopment of LaGuardia airport on Thursday, and thanks to mounting tensions between the New York and New Jersey sides of the famously fractious bistate agency, no one’s quite sure how it will go.
The authority's chairman has his doubts about the project.
“I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t do LaGuardia, because I think it’s critically important, but I’m not going to support it in the current configuration,” said John Degnan, an appointee of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
It's not clear precisely what configuration would be acceptable to Degnan, but the rebuild is a centerpiece of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s infrastructure agenda — he has made it the focus of several press conferences, some with Vice President Joe Biden, who famously compared the airport to a Third World facility.
According to Cuomo and his appointees at the Port Authority, the plan to remake the Central Terminal Building, create more taxiway space, create a “Central Hall” to unify the airport, and allow for the possibility of an AirTrain, would cost roughly $4 billion.
Degnan likes to view the price tag in more holistic (and historical) terms.
According to the agenda the Port released — and that Degnan, as board chairman, controls — if the plan goes through, the Port will have spent “$5.3 billion in cumulative total investment since 2004” on rethinking, designing and ultimately rebuilding the airport, including things like overhead and consultant fees.
“The number looks higher because in the past, the Port Authority has been neither transparent nor candid in what the total cost of this project is,” he said.
The issue of LaGuardia's costs has since become a serious source of friction.
After the Wall Street Journal ran an article earlier this week that emphasized the $5.3 billion number, Pat Foye, the Port Authority’s executive director and a Cuomo appointee, sent a strongly worded letter to the editor, one that can be understood as targeting Degnan, too.
“To reach $5.3B, today's article lumps in over $600 million of money spent as far back as 2004 for planning and prior projects, most of which are long completed,” Foye wrote. “These are sunk costs related to the prior piecemeal approach to development at the airport and they are not remotely part of Gov. Cuomo’s vision for a new airport.”
This is just the latest sign that all is not well between the states that share the Port.
Last week, Cuomo intervened to retain his appointee, Foye, as executive director.
In so doing, he effectively overrode an agreement the bi-state board had already reached on how to govern itself.
Cuomo's maneuver seemed “tied into his hope that by keeping his original person there he can help control what the Port does,” said Jameson Doig, author of the authoritative Port history, "Empire on the Hudson."
It's also engendered doubts about the Port's ability to reform itself.
After Bridgegate tarnished the Port Authority’s reputation, both Cuomo and Christie agreed to improve the agency that controls a huge chunk of regional infrastructure, including airports, bus terminals, ports, PATH, bridges and tunnels, and the World Trade Center site.
No longer would New York appoint an executive director, while New Jersey picked a chairman, only for New Jersey to appoint a deputy executive director and New York a vice-chairman.
Instead, the board would pick one unitary, politically independent CEO and the chairmanship would rotate between the two states, starting with New York.
Problem is, the board hasn’t been able to find a CEO who meets the approval of those two governors.
Foye sought the job himself, but when it became clear the board didn’t want him, he announced he’d leave by the end of March.
Board members proceeded to come up with a transition plan: they would make the Port’s chief financial officer the interim executive director while they continued in their as-yet fruitless effort to find a CEO.
Cuomo wouldn’t have it.
Or rather, he would have it, but only under one condition: the chairmanship would have to start rotating now, before a CEO is hired, starting with New York. Degnan, who would have been disempowered, said no.
So Cuomo convinced Foye to stick around longer, and Degnan sent an email to board members recounting the episode and expressing his disappointment.
On Tuesday, Degnan expressed disappointment with the Port Authority of a wider-gauge sort.
“We’ve got a $26 billion, 10-year capital plan which has virtually zero dollars in it for a Port Authority bus terminal, through which there are 220,000 passenger trips a day of people arriving to work dirty, confused, frustrated and tired,” he said at a Bloomberg LP transportation conference, referring to the midtown bus terminal, whose replacement is a New Jersey priority.
"I think Governor Cuomo has definitely stepped into a vacuum," said Loretta Weinberg, a New Jersey state senator and outspoken advocate for a new bus terminal, which is heavily used by New Jersey commuters.
Interstate tension is hardly abnormal for a bi-state agency whose officials are supposed to transcend their parochial interests for the sake of the region’s common good, all the while minding the political exigencies of the governors who control them.
“It’s built into the way the institution was created,” said Degnan.
Doig made a similar point, recalling an episode from the late 90s, "when the Port Authority felt that Port Newark and Elizabeth would be better served if you dredged the harbor, and [then governor George] Pataki blocked it, because he said we need more attention to the container port on the New York side, which is a piddling little thing over on Staten Island."
But Degnan warned that tensions can only be allowed to fester so much.
“What would be unfortunate is if that tension manifested itself in gridlock, and nothing got done,” he said. “But so far, that’s not happening.”