THE PORT AUTHORITY OF NEW YORK AND NEW JERSEY
The first authority formed in the United States was the Port of New York Authority, which was created in 1921 by the legislatures of New York and New Jersey and was subsequently renamed the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. In the following discussion it is simply referred to as the Port Authority.
The authority's original mission was to improve the transportation of rail freight in the region. The port area is divided by the New York-New Jersey boundary, which lies in the middle of the Hudson River. The interstate problem was compounded by commercial rivalry between the business establishments on the New Jersey and the New York sides of the port. On the New Jersey side, the problem of political coordination was further complicated because the area is divided into a large number of municipalities. An authority looked like a way to cut through the problems of multiple competing political jurisdictions. The authority also offered a way to get the public's work done without tax increases. In the words of Al (Alfred E.) Smith, then Governor of New York, such an authority would be
the one method we have discovered of getting work done expeditiously and
without overtaxing our people to get it done.3
At first the Port of New York Authority concentrated on rail freight improvements, but it quickly became apparent that the future belonged much more to the automobile and the truck than it did to the train. The authority's basic mission soon expanded to that of building in a coordinated way the river crossings that would meld the New York and New Jersey sides of the New York region into a single metropolitan area.
The decisions about what to build and where emerged from a mix of engineering, planning, and political considerations. The decision to let the entire problem of river crossings be handled by a single public agency was a political one, driven in part by the conviction of Governor Smith that such an important public task should not be left to separate groups of investors formed for each project but should be handled publicly as a single undertaking.
The first major project was the George Washington Bridge, which spans the Hudson River from the Palisades in New Jersey to 179th Street in northern Manhattan. The decision to build there rather than to build either a bridge or a tunnel to midtown Manhattan was made for a variety of reasons. The Governor of New Jersey and a variety of interests in northern New Jersey wanted the crossing in that location to open up the northeastern part of the state. Part of the decision-making process turned on a particular personality. One of the great civil engineers of the twentieth century, Othmar H. Ammann, a Swiss immigrant to the United States, was taken with the idea of such a crossing to northern Manhattan. The bridge that he conceived would be the longest single span in the world. In the late 1920s a suspended center span of over 3,000 feet was an engineering challenge that would push the bridge-builder's art to the limit. Ammann was convinced that it could be done, and he wanted to be the one to do it. A persuasive and energetic man, he was a major force behind the scenes in bringing about a consensus that the bridge could be built within a reasonable budget, that it would quickly pay for itself, and that it could be completed in a relatively short period of time. He proved right on all counts, and the bridge was finished in 1931, in less than two years and under budget.4 Ammann, who had some of the artist in his makeup, as well as being a talented engineer, was very concerned with bridges as works of art. Commenting on the bridge in 1936, Le Corbusier said,
The George Washington Bridge over the Hudson is the most beautiful bridge
in the world. Made of cables and steel, it gleams in the sky like an arch
upturned, blest. It is the only seat of grace in a disheveled city.5
The bridge was a major planning decision for the region. The direct, continuous, high-capacity link for motor vehicles provided by the George Washington Bridge gave a tremendous impetus to the growth of northern New Jersey. The effect might not be so great today, since suburbs are much more economically self-sufficient than they once were. But in the 1930s the economic role of the metropolitan core, Manhattan in the case of the New York region, was proportionally much greater than it is today. If one says that regional planning to a large extent consists of intervening at a few strategic points, the building of the bridge was clearly one such decision. In subsequent years the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey continued to build, producing many of the links that bind the New York area, cut up as it is by bodies of water, into a unified region.
In addition to building bridges and the Lincon Tunnel connecting New Jersey with midtown Manhattan, the Port Authority has also played a role in mass transit. It operates bus lines, and much of the bus traffic between New York City and the New Jersey part of the region uses the Port Authority's bus terminals. It also operates a commuter rail service from
New Jersey to lower Manhattan. Although it did not build them, the Port Authority operates the region's three major airports, La Guardia, Kennedy, and Newark.
The Port Authority has also played a major part in shaping the role of New York City as a port. In the period after World War II, the Manhattan docks lost their ocean freight business. The city's congested streets drove up the cost of moving freight, and lack of available land made it impossible to expand docking facilities to handle containerized freight, which made its appearance during that period. The Port Authority responded by developing the Port Newark-Elizabeth Marine Terminal (Port Newark) on the New Jersey side of the region. Covering over three square miles, the terminal is set up to handle containerized freight and provides very quick access to the Interstate Highway System as well as to railroads and Newark Airport. Although its construction did nothing to keep freight handling at its traditional Manhattan location, it does enable the region to retain considerable ocean freight business that would otherwise have gone out of the region entirely.
All organizations, like living creatures, have a drive to survive and grow. By 2012 the Port Authority had grown to a workforce of 7,000, including its own police force of 1,800. In that year it had revenues of $4.1 billion and made $3.3 billion in capital expenditures.6 From its initial mission of improving rail transportation in the metropolitan area it had experienced a considerable amount of what in the Pentagon is called "mission creep."
The Port Authority was not the only authority that shaped the New York region. On the New York side of the Hudson River, a number of bridges and tunnels have been built by the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (TBTA), directed for many years by the late Robert Moses.7 Together, the two have built a large share of the bridges and tunnels that tie New York City itself and the larger metropolitan area together.
The main instrument for financing an authority such as the Port Authority is the tax-exempt bond (see Chapter 9). The monies received from the sales of bonds are used to build facilities, and charges like tolls are used to pay off the bonds. For the government, whether city or state, that created the authority, this is an attractive arrangement. The bonds are not an obligation of the government, nor do they count in determining whether that government has reached its debt limit. The agency can accomplish the purposes of the government that created it without obligating or burdening that government. If the agency has sufficient revenuegenerating assets within the total mix of services that it provides, it can be entirely self-financing, as is the Port Authority. Not every activity must be self-supporting, since the more profitable ones can "cross-subsidize" the money-losing ones. For example, surpluses on bridge tolls might subsidize losses on bus operations.
Above, the George Washington Bridge, shown looking west from the New York side of the Hudson River, which was the first major project built by the Port Authority. To accommodate rising traffic volumes, a lower deck was added to the bridge after World War II. Below, Port Newark, built by the Port Authority on the New Jersey side of New York Harbor near the confluence of the Hackensack and Passaic Rivers. Note the strategic location. Immediately to the west of the port is the New Jersey Turnpike, a part of the Interstate Highway System, and beyond that is Newark Airport, visible at the very top of the photo.