- Associated Press - Monday, April 21, 2014

NEW YORK (AP) - One by one, a panel of experts made a series of recommendations Monday aimed at restoring accountability and credibility to the beleaguered Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, yet most returned to a common theme: Find a way to depoliticize an agency that has come to be perceived as, in one panelist’s words, “a cookie jar” for the two governors who control who serves in leadership positions.

The occasion was a special meeting of the Port Authority’s oversight committee called in the wake of months of embarrassing revelations about apparently politically motivated lane closures at the George Washington Bridge last fall, a scandal that has dogged New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s administration since it was revealed that the closures were engineered by an aide in his office and a Christie associate at the Port Authority.

Four Port Authority officials have resigned since then, including chairman David Samson, though Samson was not implicated in the lane closure scheme.

Failing to act now would put the agency “perpetually on the defensive against an aroused public,” said Martin Robins, founding director of the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University and a former director of planning at the Port Authority.

In describing the current climate, Scott Rechler, the Port Authority vice chairman who chairs the oversight committee, said some of the challenges faced by the agency had their genesis in the post-Sept. 11, 2001, years when the decision to rebuild the World Trade Center distracted the agency from its core mission of operating the ports, airports, bridges and tunnels in the New York region.

“That was an incredible crisis that this agency went through, and it just shook it up and it’s now at a point where it’s got to rebound,” he said. “Today, we have another crisis and I think we’re not wasting the crisis, we’re using it to force change. The political winds for change and reform are at our back and that’s why we’re having sessions like we’ve had today and why we’re going to continue to push ahead with tangible reforms.”

Front and center among those reforms is the way the Port Authority is structured at the top. Currently, the governors split board appointees evenly; New York’s governor appoints an executive director and vice chairman and New Jersey’s governor appoints the deputy executive director and chairman.

Several speakers Monday suggested having the board choose an executive director, after a nationwide search; the panel and some of the committee members also floated the idea of giving more power to the executive director rather than have that position and the deputy’s position be co-equal.

That touched upon an issue raised during the lane closure scandal: testifying before a legislative committee. Executive director Pat Foye, a New York appointee, essentially told New Jersey lawmakers that he was powerless to fire David Wildstein, the orchestrator of the lane closings, because Wildstein was a New Jersey appointee.

Both governors would have to approve any changes to the Port Authority’s bylaws.

The Port Authority also “should get out of all their extraneous activities,” Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association, told the committee. Rechler and others said that could entail taking a hard look at the PATH rail system, a heavily-used but money-losing operation that the Port Authority subsidizes with revenues from its other units.

Robins suggested looking at whether PATH could be folded into New Jersey Transit, which didn’t exist in 1962 when PATH was born, but now is one of the largest public transit systems in the nation.