Another George Washington Bridge casualty

While the resignation of Port Authority of New York and New Jersey chairman David Samson was described as a decision he had put off for months, it nonetheless came 10 days after the US Attorney’s Office of New Jersey issued a subpoena seeking records related to Samson’s law firm and projects procured by the agency.

According to media reports, New Jersey US Attorney Paul Fishman is investigating whether there was a conflict of interest regarding Samson’s law firm Wolff & Samson and the companies awarded the Bayonne Bridge and Goethals Bridge projects.

The latter is a $1.5 billion project the Port Authority procured as a public-private partnership (PPP; P3).

It is as yet unknown whether a conflict of interest did exist and what, if any, impact this may have on the Goethals Bridge project.

Because the investigation is ongoing, Fishman’s office could neither confirm nor deny whether it had issued a subpoena.

Yet, the timing of Samson’s resignation is noteworthy since he was one of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s allies who had survived the initial fall-out from the bridge scandal that involved closing two access lanes to the George Washington Bridge – which links New York and New Jersey – for five days last September. Investigators are trying to determine whether the lane closures were politically motivated and who knew about them.

In addition to the Goethals Bridge, the Port Authority is also in the procurement process for another major P3 project – the redevelopment of LaGuardia Airport, one of New York’s three major airports.

In late March – after the law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which Christie hired to conduct an internal review of the lane closures, presented its report – the New Jersey governor spoke of possibly dismantling the Port Authority.

A few days later, the Rudin Center for Transportation and Management at New York University Wagner, released a report calling for reform of the authority.

“There is now broad recognition that the Port Authority (especially in New Jersey) has served as a source of patronage for political appointees,” the report’s authors wrote.

But the agency’s “critical problem” is not political abuse or mismanagement but an out-of-date business model.

“To fulfill its mission and to help the New York-New Jersey region thrive over the next fifty years, the Port Authority needs to rethink not only how it manages its business, but how it defines what that business is,” the report stated.

A reformed – rather than dismantled – Port Authority would be good news for New York’s P3 market; such projects would not be possible without it, since the state does not currently have enabling legislation in place.