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Port Authority's Shorris on public works and the Robert Moses of today (guess)

It's time for the public sector to reassert itself, says Anthony E. Shorris, Executive Director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. And that means we should stop looking to real estate developers for key infrastructure.

He was speaking (video) at a New York Law School (NYLS) breakfast on 10/19/07. At about 53:20 of the video, former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, now head of New York Civic, asked Shorris who were the 2007 equivalents of master builder Robert Moses and 30-year Port Authority head Austin Tobin.

Shorris: Well, that’s a good question… The larger answer is we sort of right now we have ceded a lot of that to the private sector. Right now, we expect developers, real estate developers, who will build our train stations and run our ferries… we’ve had a kind of almost a religious obsession with having the marketplace solve all problems, including public works.

I think any economist would tell you it’s problematic to have public works created by the marketplace, because they’re about market failures. And our ceding all of our leadership to the marketplace in some of these I think has been a problem. So when you ask who are the great public leaders on these things, mostly the big developers right now are all people in the marketplace. In fact, the largest investors in capital are private funds… who make investment decisions about ports and airports and so on.
(Emphasis added)

While the Port Authority is not the agency behind Atlantic Yards, Shorris's comment touches on the package of "public purposes" claimed for the Atlantic Yards project. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority had not previously sought to relocate and revamp its Vanderbilt Yard, nor to create a new subway entrance. But developer Forest City Ratner proposed that as part of a package, thus asserting that the overall value of its bid for development rights well exceeded that of rival bidder Extell, which proposed a higher cash payment.

A new era

Shorris continued: Part of the argument I’m trying to make is that, after a long 12 years, and the Port Authority’s decline, I think, started in the George Marlin era, and was exacerbated by, obviously, 9/11... and then was followed by a number of years where all it could do was scramble about the Trade Center site and lost its focus on everything else it’s supposed to do... It’s been around a long time… It’s had bad periods… I think this is cyclical…

I think right now the good news for me… is that [New Jersey Gov. Jon] Corzine, ]New York Gov. Eliot] Spitzer, [New York Mayor Mike] Bloomberg are actually about as good as you’re going to get on these kinds of issues, about being interested in creating great public works, and paying for them, and thinking about economics in a sound way. The tumblers in the lock… have turned and now the question is, can we turn the key and actually start building something again… So this is a pretty good opportunity right now, maybe not to create Moseses and Tobins again, but at least to get the public sector creating the public works the region needs.

Shorris may have good resons for optimism, but the Bloomberg administration has relied significantly on the marketplace to build infrastructure; perhaps the Port Authority head was referring mainly to his agency.

Internal capacity?

Ross Sandler, Director of NYLS's Center for New York City Law, noted that the Port Authority had in the past had "a culture of very strong engineers," and asked Shorris if the agency had maintained its capacity.

Shorris responded: It takes a long time for institutions to be built, and it takes a long time for them to decline… When I came back, although I thought it was much weaker than it was 12 years ago, there’s still a fair chunk of it there... I have two internal goals… one of them is about quality, design quality, and the second one is what I call capacity, about financial capacity and human capacity.

The reason the authority exists, as an entity, and isn’t a government agency, is because of a unique decision we all made to give it financial capacity, by dedicating revenue streams, and human capacity, by protecting it from the politicization of its staffing. If we can keep that in place, and invest sufficiently, I think the excitement of building these big things will allow the agency to attract better engineers than its salary structure says it deserves.

The PA's rebirth?

Congressman Jerrold Nadler commented, "Henry [Stern] asked who will be the Austin Tobin and the Robert Moses of the next era. Hopefully Tony Shorris will be. Time will tell that."