If you don't live in the Northeast, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey may sound like just another obscure government agency. But it's suddenly been in the spotlight because of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and the lane closures at the George Washington Bridge.
The agency's name is a bit of an understatement. The Port Authority manages the biggest port on the East Coast, along with three major airports, the key bridges and tunnels across the Hudson River, bus and rail lines, and even the World Trade Center site.
The Port Authority controls a pot of money for long-range construction projects that's bigger than the annual budget of many states. The name is a holdover from the way the Port Authority was created.
Birth Of Giant
Back in 1920, business at the port of New York was bustling, but there was a problem. The port is spread across two states: New Jersey on one side of the Hudson River, and New York on the other. And the two states could not agree on how to manage it.
"The Port Authority was to be truly a bi-state effort," says Jameson Doig, who wrote a book about the Port Authority called Empire on the Hudson.
Doig says it was designed so that the governors of each state would appoint half of the Port Authority's commissioners. That was supposed to prevent local politicians from putting their friends in charge, and to encourage interstate cooperation.
"That was the key element, to not have [a] tug of war between the two states," he says, "but rather ... to improve the transportation and the economic development of the New York-New Jersey region as a whole."
And for a while, Doig says, that's pretty much how it worked.
Crossing The Streams (Of Money)
The Port Authority built the George Washington Bridge — the one at the heart of the current scandal — on time and under budget when it opened to traffic in 1931. For most of the 20th century, Doig says, the agency was a model of government competence and cooperation, even as it got bigger and drifted further from its original mission.
But in the 1990s, Republican New York Gov. George Pataki began the tradition of appointing political allies to positions of power at the Port Authority.
"What it did clearly in hindsight was it started to create two separate agencies in one building," says Thomas Wright, executive director of the Regional Plan Association in New York.
Since the 1990s, Wright says Port Authority commissioners from both sides of the Hudson have gotten more calculating about how they steer billions of dollars in spending back to their own states.
"They took the budget [and] they split it down the middle, essentially," he says. "So for every dollar invested in one side of the river, a dollar has to be invested in the other side of the river. It's absurd."
That process has only accelerated since Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie took office. Since then, the agency has moved even further from its bi-state roots. Like spending billions of Port Authority dollars, for example, to rebuild the Pulaski Skyway, a road that never leaves New Jersey.
Doig says Christie appointed political allies to dozens of positions.
"When Chris Christie became governor, he added a new passion, you might say, to have patronage appointees at the agency," Doig says.
Doig is also critical of Cuomo for, he says, all but ignoring the Port Authority.
Two of Christie's top appointees — David Wildstein and Bill Baroni — have resigned over their roles in the plan to close toll lanes at the George Washington Bridge last year, apparently as retribution for a political enemy.
Whenever that scandal dies down, Wright hopes the conversation will turn to reform.
"You go back to the original intention of the Port Authority; it was fiscal accountability with political independence," he says. "And we've got the worst of both worlds right now."
But any changes will require dialogue across the Hudson River, and that is exactly what's been missing at the Port Authority for a quite a while.
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