Port Authority founders could imagine a once-a-century pandemic

In April, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey marked its centennial, and this month marks my fourth year as chairman of this storied bi-state agency.

The founders of the Port Authority could not have envisioned massive airports, multiple vehicular tunnels under the Hudson, iconic bridges, an integrated ports operation rivaling any on the globe, or the rising of two distinct World Trade Centers. Over the past 18 months, I have thought about what the founders could imagine when this agency was created in 1921.

One of those things would have been a global pandemic that could kill millions of people, sicken more, and upend life as it had been, as did the 1918 influenza pandemic.

Port Authority founders understood the need to efficiently move food, goods, medicines and people during a World War and during a global pandemic. And because they understood that critical need, they created a bi-state agency that was flexible, that could, in its best moments, efficiently pivot quickly to ensure that the millions of people living in this region and the millions more whose livelihoods depended on the economic vitality of this region would not want for basics.

The Port Authority has always been at its best during crisis — through wars, economic downturns, through natural disasters, through the horror of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the inconceivable losses of Sept. 11, 2001. At this four-year-marker as Port Authority chairman, I remain in awe of what its workforce accomplished — no longer looking through the long lens of history but at my lived experiences.

A dedicated, passionate workforce is a given at the Port Authority. That workforce doesn’t make headlines, but airports, ports, crossings, facilities and PATH do not run by themselves.

What isn’t a given is that the agency’s top leadership works as a united team to provide the tools and support that the workforce requires to deliver best-in-class service. My partner at the Port Authority, Executive Director Rick Cotton, who joined the agency when I did, is a key factor as to why the agency is at its best today.

His leadership, his focus on the “brilliant basics” — the things that matter to our customers every day — cleanliness of facilities, quality of service, infrastructure kept in good working order — while also investing in new infrastructure, adopting best practices and utilizing 21st-century technology to provide up-to-date information are all hallmarks of his leadership.

Consider that during the pandemic, milestones were reached on the construction of a new Terminal A and consolidated parking/rental facility at Newark Liberty International Airport, the largest investment ever made by the Port Authority in New Jersey. And plans continue for a new AirTrain at Newark Liberty, as well.

PATH service continued to be reliable and safe for the front-line workers who needed to get to their jobs.

A whole new LaGuardia Airport is nearing completion in Queens.

The “Restore the George” project — the replacement of all suspender cables on the George Washington Bridge — is now more than half completed.

A much-needed new Midtown Bus Terminal that will be larger, more commuter friendly, more respectful of surrounding communities, and greener is moving closer to a construction phase.

Additionally, at the World Trade Center, construction restarted on the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and the new performing arts center has risen to its full height.

Rick’s steady hand has guided these projects, and more, aided by a board of commissioners that works as a team. We are neither New Jersey nor New York: we are Port Authority. We do not always agree on each issue when we begin a discussion but we always agree that we were asked to serve to deliver results for the people of two great states. That is the starting point for all discussion and deliberation.

That is what the founders envisioned in 1921. They were politically astute enough to know there would be highs and lows within the life of the agency, but they understood the inherent need for the Port Authority. Political leaders from governors to state and federal legislators put aside parochial interests to create something visionary.

This July, there was a heroes’ parade in lower Manhattan honoring the individuals who “showed up” on sites — staffed transit systems, hospitals, pharmacies, and food stores during the darkest days of the pandemic. The Port Authority was well represented. But in a complex organization as large as the Port Authority, every member of our workforce “showed up” every day.

The individuals who worked remotely and kept the machinery of the agency moving — from ensuring PPEs were supplied to frontline workers, that health protocols were continually updated, that “the lights” figuratively and literally were never turned off — they are all heroes, as well.

After four years as chairman, I have seen firsthand there is nothing the Port Authority workforce cannot achieve. It is unique in its ability to continually expand and coalesce, much like a family does, through good times and bad. It is remarkable.

Somehow, I think that is also something the agency’s founders could imagine 100 years ago.

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