Durable lessons from New York on collaboration, leadership, and overcoming complex political challenges
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has morphed in ways that would be unrecognizable to its founders. Its mission evolved from improving rail freight to building motor vehicle crossings, airports, office towers, and industrial parks and taking control of a failing commuter rail line. In its early years, the agency was often viewed with admiration; however as it drew up plans, negotiated to take control of airfields and marine terminals, and constructed large bridges and tunnels, the Port Authority became the object of less favorable attention. It was attacked as a “super-government” that must be reined in, while the mayors of New York and Newark argued that it should be broken up with its pieces given to local governments for their own use.
Despite its criticisms and travails, for over half a century the Port Authority overcame hurdles that had frustrated other public and private efforts, built the world's longest suspension bridge, and took a leading role in creating an organization to reduce traffic delays in the New York-New Jersey region. How did the Port Authority achieve these successes? And what lessons does its history offer to other cities and regions in the United States and beyond? In a time when public agencies are often condemned as inefficient and corrupt, this history should provide some positive lessons for governmental officials and social reformers.
In 2021, the Port Authority marked its 100th birthday. Its history reveals a struggle between the public and private sectors, the challenges of balancing democratic accountability and efficiency, and the tension between regional and local needs. From selected Port Authority successes and failures, Philip Mark Plotch and Jen Nelles produce a significant and engaging account of a powerful governmental entity that offers durable lessons on collaboration, leadership, and the challenge of overcoming complex political challenges in modern America.
Philip Mark Plotch is Principal Researcher at the Eno Center for Transportation.
Jen Nelles is a Senior Research Fellow at the Innovation Caucus, Oxford Brookes Business School.
“Plotch and Nelles offer a novel framework that identifies several factors that explain both the Port Authority’s successes and failures. Anyone who is interested in urban politics, regionalism, urban planning, state and local government, or more specifically in the New York metro area, will find this a fascinating book.”
—Richardson Dilworth, Drexel University- Richardson Dilworth
“This book provides a detailed economic history of the Port Authority of NY and NJ. Yet it is also a work that addresses a number of key questions concerning the political economy of large public organizations. Given the economic and cultural significance of the Port Authority and the key infrastructures for which it is responsible, this is an important contribution with international relevance.”
—Iain Docherty, University of Stirling- Iain Docherty
“Mobilizing the Metropolis is a gem. Not only does it artfully tell the story of the organizational evolution and successes of nation’s first public authority in the 20th century but also it underlines the critical importance of regional infrastructure projects—airports, bridges, tunnels, ports, ferries, terminals, and their connectors in forging the NY-NJ metro area into the powerful economic force it has become over the past 100 years. Most notable, it offers a pathway for the transformation of PANYNJ into an effective 21st century institution.”- Eugenie L. Birch
—Eugenie L. Birch, FAICP, Stuart Weitzman School of Design
“Mobilizing the Metropolis offers an authoritative account of how the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey grew and shaped the metropolitan region. Exhaustively researched, it offers a trenchant analysis of the key factors accounting for the Port Authority’s spectacular rise and recent struggles. There are valuable lessons learned applicable to other public agencies and regions. This is a significant contribution to the study of public bureaucracy and infrastructure and should attract a broad audience.”- Steven P. Erie
—Steven P. Erie, Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of California San Diego
“Mobilizing the Metropolis is both the definitive history of the Port Authority and an impressive critical analysis of its evolution, strengths, and weaknesses over its century-long existence. Highly readable, it contains important lessons about how any public authority should, or should not, be created and operated.”- Jim Burnley
—Jim Burnley, Chair, Eno Center for Transportation, Former United States Secretary of Transportation
“Plotch and Nelles hit the mark with this tour-de-force review of major infrastructure project delivery and the golden rule of effective coalitions. They explain that, in order to succeed, projects must have crystal clear scope, positive, enabling stakeholder relations, and coalitions that are singularly focused on successful budgetary and schedule outcomes.”- Andy Byford
—Andy Byford, former Commissioner of Transport for London, president of NYC Transit, and CEO of Toronto Transit Commission
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