Is There a Downside?
The picture presented thus far is that of the authority cutting the Gordian knot of multiple jurisdictions and doing its work in a condition of relative isolation from the city or state finances. Is there a downside to this otherwise attractive picture?
Because the authority is isolated from direct involvement in electoral politics, it may be able to operate with a somewhat longer time frame than the two- or four-year cycle that necessarily looms so large in the minds of those who have to stand for re-election. Thus its relative political isolation may enable it to accomplish some tasks expeditiously. But because it is somewhat outside the political process it may make decisions that the body politic as a whole would not choose to make. In the case of the Port Authority its transportation decisions were, in effect, huge planning decisions, but they were made at least partly outside the usual planning process. That is not a statement about whether, in retrospect, they were good or bad decisions, but simply that they were very big decisions made by a relatively small number of people who stood outside the usual political process.
The Problem of Politicization. One potential risk with an authority is that it may become politicized and behave in a manner that is at odds with the neutral-servant-of-the- public-interest model implied previously. The Port Authority provided a spectacular example of this in 2013. The story takes some explaining. The authority is run by a board of 12 directors. Six are appointed the the Governor of New York and six by the Governor of New Jersey, both sets subject to confirmation by the respective legislatures. The Governors have enormous control over the policies of the Port Authority.
In the summer of 2013 two entry lanes to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, NJ were closed by Port Authority police for four days, resulting in enormous traffic jams in Fort Lee. At first, it was claimed that the closures had been done in connection with a traffic study, but that claim was soon falsified. The closures were apparently ordered by a member of Governor Chris Christie's staff and a Christie loyalist employed by the Port Authority. The Governor claimed that he had no prior knowledge of this act and only learned about it after the fact. That claim has never been disproved. The generally accepted explanation for the action was that it was political payback. Governor Christie, though a Republican, had been endorsed by a number of Democratic mayors in New Jersey. Fort Lee's Democratic Mayor, Mark Sokolich, was not one of them. The "smoking gun" was an e-mail from a Christie staffer saying, "Time for some traffic problems in Ft. Lee" sent shortly before the closings. This episode, soon to be termed "bridgegate" by the media, prompted a number of official inquiries and also a great deal of investigative journalism, some of which went far beyond bridgegate itself. An article in The New York Times in March 2014 asserted:
But long before the gate closings, the Port Authority . . . had already been turned into a de facto political operation for Governor Christie, a review of the agency's operations since Mr. Christie took office suggests. . . . If New York got something, New Jersey had to get something, too. In exchange for the World Trade Center [rebuilding], for example, New Jersey secured projects including the $1 billion raising of the Bayonne Bridge and the Pulaski Skyway—an unusual undertaking for the Port Authority, because it does not connect the two states.8
Note that there is no accusation of criminality here. But there is an accusation of a very considerable misallocation of agency money for political reasons. A major authority has great power to accomplish important tasks, but also the potential for being misused by its political masters.