It’s Time to Make NJ, National Infrastructure a Political Priority

Bob Hennelly argues that the time is long overdue for labor and the public to find common cause to demand that rebuilding our NJ and national infrastructure gets back on the national agenda.

It should tell you all you need to know that the topic of infrastructure funding didn’t even merit its own question in the Democratic Party’s presidential debates.  

It is not as charged as immigration, yet the national deterioration of our rail, road and airport infrastructure exacts a heavy toll in terms of congestion, air pollution and ever rising user fees and tolls. 

For decades now, the Federal government has been reducing its role in upgrading the nation’s transportation infrastructure.  

Even as China committed a bigger and bigger percentage of their GDP to these kinds of projects, our Federal government was increasingly missing in action even as it was mandating local agencies, like the Port Authority, undertake pricey upgrades like Positive Train Control that can prevent train crashes and derailments. 

President Trump’s refusal to commit to the region’s essential Gateway Project to build a much needed second passenger rail train tunnel under the Hudson is just the latest example of this Federal failure.  

So, what happens when the Federal government refuses to return some of the billions we send Washington back in the form of infrastructure upgrades? 

“It is a big problem,” Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton told me at a press conference. “The Federal government had been a critical partner with local transportation agencies in providing top priority resources. What we have seen is multiple examples, probably the leading one is the Gateway Project where the Federal government has backed away from its historic role of supporting major regional transportation projects.” 

The bottom line is “the entire burden on the residents of the community to finance the project” he added.  

This has been the state of affairs for so many years, that the Port Authority’s latest proposal to raise tolls feels like the movie “Ground Hog Day.” Anyone who has lived long enough to see a Port Authority Chairman indicted and convicted, knows that this is how the bi-state shakedown machine works.  

We can do all the parts in this Gilbert and Sullivan like three act light opera we’ll call the Hudson Hustle. 

It opens with the plaintive duo from the agency’s Chairman and Executive Director about how without an additional massive infusion from motorists, airline passengers and PATH riders, life as we know it will come to a grinding halt and the region will slip into third world status.  

Off-stage, we will hear a counter aria from the elected officials protesting the Port Authority’s proposal bemoaning the burden being placed on the public with ever higher tolls. 

Act II consists of the public hearings at which members of the public are permitted to comment for posterity. 

In Act III some version of the Port Authority’s revenue plan prevails. 

Yet, after attending the June 27 Port Authority public meeting at their Jersey City offices where the toll and fare hikes were on the agenda, I sense there is the potential for new voices to get in the mix. 

I was immediately struck by the heavy police presence at the entrance to the building, in the lobby and in the meeting room itself.    

It was as if the agency was concerned about some form of insurrection and, considering the salaries of Port Authority police, represented a huge expense. 

The hearing room was packed with union and labor activists. The crowd included a delegation of union leaders from the agency’s PATH commuter railroad unions that have been working without a current contract for almost a decade, dozens of members of UNITE Local 100 that has organized 10,000 workers across the country who make minimum wage assembling airline meals, and members of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, there to protest the proposal for a new fee to be added onto their airport fares. 

Indeed, the bulk of the public comment period was taken up with impassioned pleas from all three groups who were pushing back on being squeezed by the status quo. They had reason to believe that their entreaties to the Commissioners would not fall on deaf ears. 

Last year, after an aggressive campaign by the Service Employees International Union, the agency committed to substantial raises for thousands of airport workers culminating in a $19 an hour wage by 2023. 

Over the decades I have noticed that the Port Authority public meetings are highly choreographed affairs where the Commissioners are stage managed through their “deliberations” like Lipizzan show horses. 

If there’s any divergence of opinion it seems to occur back stage somewhere.   

Under the terms of the bi-state compact that Congress signed off on in 1921 that created the Port Authority the agency is more like the Vatican or a duchy, a sovereign state that is a law unto itself.  

The only linkage to representative democracy comes via the fact that it is the Governors of New York and New Jersey that nominate the agency’s Commissioners. 

Traditionally, membership on the Port’s Board of Commissioners was dominated by major campaign donors and political fixers like Charles Kushner and former New Jersey Attorney General David Samson, who were both convicted on Federal corruption charges. 

But over the last few years Gov. Cuomo has done a lot to diversify the board’s makeup by naming people like Rossana Rosado, New York’s Secretary of State and former publisher of El Diario La Prensa as well as Leecia Eve, formerly an economic development official with New York State and now an executive with Verizon. 

Cuomo has also added George T. McDonald, a philanthropist who founded the Doe Fund, a non-profit that has helped thousands of formerly incarcerated individuals, people dealing with homelessness and drug addiction rebuild their live through meaningful employment. 

The New York Governor has also added Gary LaBarbera, a national labor figure who is president of the Building and Construction Council of Greater New York. 

The Commissioners will all take turns presiding over the public hearings that are required before the bi-state agency acts on its toll and fare hike proposal.  

No doubt they will take heat from the public for the proposed toll hikes, AirTrain fare increases and new taxi fees. Yet, it is our Federal government’s abdication that’s driving this never-ending cycle.  

The time is long overdue for labor and the public to find common cause to demand that rebuilding our infrastructure gets back on the national agenda.  

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