Polimeni: Building a ‘Bridgegate’ to LI

By: Michael Polimeni on January 21, 2014
Michael Polimeni

Tumultuous times triggered by the George Washington Bridge scandal may in fact be a positive and historic opportunity for the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey – and for Long Island.

Lost amidst the Fort Lee fallout, with its headhunting and political body counts, is the solid but unrecognized success the Port Authority has enjoyed in moving forward infrastructure projects essential to strengthening the region’s transportation future, thus protecting our role as a strategic destination for cargo, hospitality and job growth. Despite the idiocy of a New Jersey political gang inundating Fort Lee with traffic, Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye has been able to work through the agency’s geopolitical dysfunction over the last several years to achieve a number of strategic goals.

The list includes “topping off” the new World Trade Center, authorizing the award of a $1.5 billion public-private partnership to replace the nearly 100-year-old Goethals Bridge, replacing the steel decking and suspension cables on the GWB and dredging the Arthur Kill by 50 feet to give larger cargo ships access to New York ports – ensuring we don’t lose our share of freight and jobs to other Eastern Seaboard ports.

And while we love to hate our airports, hundreds of millions of dollars are being directed into JFK and LaGuardia every year by the Port Authority.

None of these achievements make headlines or capture the imagination of tabloid editors, not like the drama of a governor brought low at the height of his power. But the New Jersey scandal won’t create jobs, economic activity or infrastructure investment.  At some point, when Chris Cristie’s woes become historic footnote, we’ll still face the challenge of rebuilding our region in order to compete with mega-metro areas such as London, Dubai and Beijing.

Against the backdrop of “Bridgegate,” there are those asking whether the Port Authority’s charter should be examined and amended to prevent a repeat of this punitive political action allegedly orchestrated by a governor’s staff. The answer might very well be yes, but not because of any Fort Lee gridlock.

Rather, the current limited jurisdiction of the Port Authority should be expanded to include Long Island so that our fractured and feuding bi-county region – which relies on NIMBYism as de facto municipal policy – would finally have at least one unified government structure that could effectively treat us as a cohesive region.

Consider the opportunities. Islip’s Long Island MacArthur Airport needs to have its runways extended, a direct light rail built to connect with its neighboring LIRR station and some heavy-duty clout in negotiating with the major airlines. Were it to be part of the Port Authority, this airport would be a viable aviation asset for the region and for Long Island.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent State of the State address only mentioned infrastructure as it pertains to rebuilding the Tappan Zee Bridge. In a tight fiscal cycle, don’t expect to see significant state dollars allocated to Long Island this year. But if the Port Authority had Long Island in its portfolio, the independent bonding clout of the agency could allocate funds for projects that create a strong economic rate of return for New York and Long Island.

Our region’s multibillion-dollar boating industry continues to be battered by shifting sands from severe weather, with the Fire Island Inlet the latest and most serious chokepoint. Given the Port Authority’s maritime dominance, that agency would be a powerful Long Island partner in dealing with the Army Corps of Engineers to ensure dredging is done on time and where it’s most critical.

Currently, the Port Authority’s charter is quite specific about where and how it can assist the region’s economy. It was created during the 1920s, in part, because elected officials reluctantly recognized that geography is indifferent to arbitrary political jurisdictions. The only effective solution was a bi-state agency that, despite its cumbersome internal bureaucracy, would find, fund and build effective infrastructure solutions. Today its real failing is not whether it was hijacked by Christie’s operatives, but whether it is too limited in its current mission.

An impressive figure before he was appointed the authority’s executive director, Foye has come through “Bridgegate” with his reputation enhanced. He now has an opportunity to champion a charter change that would allow him to leverage the real achievements of his agency to assist a far larger region still learning the lessons of little governments facing big problems.

Polimeni is a member of the executive board of the Association for a Better Long Island