The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey - a government agency that's obscure to most Americans, or at least has been until now - it's at the center of the controversy involving New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and lane closures at the George Washington Bridge. NPR's Joel Rose reports on how an agency partly designed to fight corruption found itself in a political scandal.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The name Port Authority is a bit of an understatement. It manages the biggest port on the East Coast, along with three major airports, the key bridges and tunnels across the Hudson River, bus and rail lines, even the World Trade Center site. The Port Authority controls a pot of money for long-range construction projects that's bigger than many states' annual budgets. The name is a holdover from the way the Port Authority was created.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This is the Port of New York.

ROSE: Back in 1920, business at the port of New York was bustling, but there was a problem. The port is spread across two states: New Jersey on one side of the Hudson River, and New York on the other. And the two states could not agree on how to manage it.

JAMESON DOIG: The Port Authority was to be truly a bi-state effort.

ROSE: Jameson Doig wrote a book about the Port Authority called "Empire on the Hudson." He says it was designed so that the governors of each state would appoint half of the Port Authority's commissioners. That was supposed to prevent local politicians from putting their friends in charge, and to encourage interstate cooperation.

DOIG: That was the key element, to not have a tug-of-war between the two states, but rather how to improve the transportation and the economic development of the New York-New Jersey region, as a whole.

ROSE: And for a while, Doig says, that's pretty much how it worked.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It's 1928, and you're looking at the birth of a landmark, the George Washington Bridge.

ROSE: The Port Authority built the George Washington Bridge - the one at the heart of the current scandal - on time and under budget. For most of the 20th century, Jameson Doig says the agency was a model of government competence and cooperation, even as it got bigger and drifted further from its original mission.

Fast-forward to the 1990s. That's when Republican New York Governor George Pataki began the tradition of appointing political allies to positions of power at the Port Authority.

THOMAS WRIGHT: What it did was, clearly in hindsight, was it started to create two separate agencies within one building.

ROSE: Thomas Wright is executive director of the Regional Plan Association in New York. Since the 1990s, he says Port Authority commissioners, from both sides of the Hudson, have gotten more calculating about how they steer billions of dollars in spending back to their own states.

WRIGHT: They took the budget. They split it down the middle, essentially. And so, for every dollar invested in one side of the river, a dollar has to be invested in the other side of the river. It's absurd.

ROSE: That process has only accelerated since New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took office. Since then, the agency has moved even further from its bi-state roots, for example, spending billions of Port Authority dollars to rebuild the Pulaski Skyway, a road that never leaves New Jersey.

And historian Jameson Doig says Christie, a Republican, appointed political allies to dozens of positions.

DOIG: When Chris Christie became governor, he added a new passion, you might say, to have patronage appointees at the agency.

ROSE: Doig is also critical of New York Governor Cuomo, a Democrat, for all but ignoring the Port Authority. Two of Christie's top appointees, David Wildstein and Bill Baroni, have resigned over their roles in the plan to close toll lanes at the George Washington Bridge last year, apparently as retribution for a political enemy.

Whenever that scandal dies down, Thomas Wright hopes the conversation will turn to reform.

WRIGHT: You go back to the original intention of the Port Authority. It was kind of fiscal accountability with political independence. And we've got the worst of both worlds right now.

ROSE: But any changes will require dialogue across the Hudson River. That is exactly what's been missing at the Port Authority for a quite a while.

Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

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