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Empire on the Hudson

Empire on the Hudson: Entrepreneurial Vision and Political Power at the Port of New York Authority

Jameson W. Doig
Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 620
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  • Book Info
    Empire on the Hudson
    Book Description:

    Revered and reviled in almost equal amounts since its inception, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has been responsible for creating and maintaining much of New York and New Jersey's transportation infrastructure -- the things that make the region work. Doig traces the evolution of the Port Authority from the battles leading to its creation in 1921 through its conflicts with the railroads and its expansion to build bridges and tunnels for motor vehicles. Chronicling the adroit maneuvers that led the Port Authority to take control of the region's airports and seaport operations, build the largest bus terminal in the nation, and construct the World Trade Center, Doig reveals the rise to power of one of the world's largest specialized regional governments.

    This definitive history of the Port Authority underscores the role of several key players -- Austin Tobin, the obscure lawyer who became Executive Director and a true "power broker" in the bi-state region, Julius Henry Cohen, general counsel of the Port Authority for its first twenty years, and Othmar H. Ammann, the Swiss engineer responsible for the George Washington Bridge, the Bayonne and Goethels bridges, the Outerbridge Crossing, and the Lincoln Tunnel.

    Today, with public works projects stalled by community opposition in almost every village and city, the story of how the Port Authority managed to create an empire on the Hudson offers lessons for citizens and politicians everywhere.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50125-5
    Subjects: History, Sociology, Transportation Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations in the Text
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Elected and Appointed Officials, with Years in Office
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Foreword
    (pp. xv-xviii)
    Kenneth T. Jackson

    New York City owes its location, its growth, its prosperity, and even its very existence, to its port. It is a natural site for a transportation break, for an entrepot of incredible variety, and for a great city. Indeed, the southern tip of present-day Manhattan was already a centuries-old trading post in 1524, when Giovanni da Verrazano, an Italian in the employ of France, became the first known European to sail into the magnificent bay. Located at the point where the Hudson and Passaic Rivers mingle with the waters of the Atlantic Ocean and Long Island Sound, the harbor is...

  6. Preface: Hopes and Judgments
    (pp. xix-xxiv)
  7. 1 A Wilsonian Hybrid The Powers of Government and the Spirit of Capitalism
    (pp. 1-24)

    From lakes and streams high in the Adirondack Mountains, the river named for Henry Hudson flows south for 300 miles, past Schuylerville, and Troy, and Albany, and then, on its east bank, past Dutchess County and Putnam and Westchester—all cities and counties of New York State. And now, less than twenty miles from the Atlantic Ocean, New Jersey bustles forward, and occupies the west bank, and demands to be recognized as joint owner of the Lower Hudson and of all the commercial opportunity of the great New York Bay. To this smaller state, its demand for recognition is a...


    • 2 The Tensions and Opportunities of Federalism Commercial Conflict in the New York Region
      (pp. 27-46)

      The year 1917 was a critical time in the long history of intermittent conflict and wary cooperation between New Jersey and New York State, and the most important individual in shaping the cooperative prospects for that year and for many years that followed was a lawyer of modest reputation, Julius Henry Cohen.

      When the year began, the two states were sharply divided, locked in a bitter conflict over railroad freight problems and over the conditions that might ensure—or jeopardize—economic prosperity throughout the bi-state New York region. New York City’s rise to the first rank of world cities, and...

    • 3 Designing a New Organization An Uneasy Marriage of Planning and Politics
      (pp. 47-74)

      It may well be, as Elting Morison has observed, that men and women who grew to maturity in the years between 1870 and the First World War came to understand the possibilities for social progress, and the obligations of personal responsibility, in quite distinctive ways. To the members of those generations, each individual seemed to be in “full control” of his or her own behavior, with some obligation to be “up and doing in the cause of righteousness.” Moreover, one thought not of “how little time there was,” but rather

      that there was time enough—time for the survey of...


    • 4 Modernizing the Rail System Contending Strategies for an Expanding Metropolis
      (pp. 77-96)

      This was the tension—between the ideals of rational planning and the jumbled play of local political forces—which shaped much of the Port Authority’s experience throughout the 1920s. The new agency itself embodied the ideal of technical rationality, of relying on experts who focused on complex technologies and on large regional and national needs, and who gave little weight to the parochial interests of individual towns and cities. With its commissioners chosen only by the two governors, and with its funding not dependent on local appropriations, the agency had a significant degree of formal insulation from local officials. And...

    • 5 Negotiating with the Railroads Regional Planning Confronts the Wary Capitalist
      (pp. 97-119)

      The Port Authority’s plans for coordinating rail and water transport, constructing new rail lines, and digging a four-mile tunnel under New York Bay were applauded across the bi-state region. To accomplish these great tasks, however, public approbation was only the first step, and it was not the most important step. The Port Authority’s goal was to improve freight movement, and in the United States this was a province of private enterprise. So the private railroad corporations would need to cooperate in carrying out the immense program. Otherwise, the Comprehensive Plan could not be carried forward, and the primary motivation for...

    • 6 Politics and Engineering Passion Expanding the Port Authority’s Dreams
      (pp. 120-142)

      Where rational planning yoked to an old technology could not succeed for the Port of New York Authority, the march of technological change—salted with individual ambition and great entrepreneurial skills—might give new life to that struggling babe. And so they did, in a pattern of causal linkages that was as complex as the slow winding down of the railroad waltz examined in the last chapter. In a pattern whose main lines of influence were not clearly visible, so that they were soon lost from historical sight. Then, as I noted in chapter 5, the story of the 1920s...

    • 7 A Web of Bridges, Tunnels, and Political Intrigue
      (pp. 143-178)

      What Othmar Ammann had accomplished through his years of campaigning for a bridge across the Hudson was a striking achievement: the two states and their Port Authority had at last endorsed his plan for a span twice the length of any yet constructed, they had agreed to place some portion of their money and their reputations in the service of Ammann’s plan, and they had hired him to carry out the job. Yet in a longer view, what had been achieved by the summer of 1925 was but a first and modest step. For Ammann would now need to carry...


    • 8 Near Bankruptcy and the Loss of Vision
      (pp. 181-191)

      The enviable reputation the Port Authority had achieved by the fall of 1931 was not lost in a day, or in a year. Indeed, one might argue that it was not lost at all during the Depression years, as close observers regularly praised the agency for its wide-ranging activities and successful projects. Archibald Macleish wrote admiringly of the Port Authority’s efforts to overcome the region’s railroad and shipping problems; he thought it “one of the most interesting and potentially one of the most formidable political agencies America has yet produced.” The New York Times commended the Authority for its “immense...

    • 9 Federalism as a Lawyers’ Playground
      (pp. 192-213)

      No part of the Port Authority was entirely immune to the malaise of the 1930s. By virtue of its special tasks, however, combined with the incurable optimism of its chief, the Law Department was less prone to infection than most branches of this weakened body. The peculiar place this bistate agency occupied in the American federal system generated continuous legal challenges; and these challenges, together with Julius Henry Cohen’s reputation as a creative thinker, attracted and held able young lawyers who had a taste for battle and a readiness to play the legal game under his shrewd tutelage.¹

      Cohen and...

    • Photos
      (pp. None)
    • 10 The Threat to Municipal Bonds as Danger and Opportunity
      (pp. 214-244)

      Although the most visible Treasury effort in the early and mid-1930s was directed toward stripping tax exemption from government salaries, municipal bonds were not forgotten. The 1932 election added to the number of House and Senate members sensitive to the charge that wealthy individuals put their money into tax-exempt securities in order to escape their “fair share” of federal taxes. In 1933 and again in 1934, efforts were made in both houses of Congress to enact legislation that would tax municipal bonds, but these initiatives failed. A major hurdle was the widely held sense that such legislation would be thrown...


    • 11 To Claim the Skies and the Seas
      (pp. 247-287)

      Now it is July 1942. John Ramsey has departed for his farm in Kentucky. Julius Henry Cohen is on the sidelines, serving occasionally as a consultant. Austin Tobin, the surprise choice of the Board of Commissioners, has just been installed as executive director. There he would stay for the next 30 years—through the administrations of six Presidents, four governors in New York State, and five chief executives in New Jersey—until the battles with Governors Cahill and Rockefeller led at last to his abrupt decision to retire in December 1971.

      The task of part four is to describe and...

    • 12 Breaking an Airline Monopoly
      (pp. 288-314)

      By the late 1940s, it was a central principle at the Port Authority that no new project would be undertaken unless it was expected to become financially self-supporting. In pursuit of that commandment, at every stage Tobin urged the staff to find ways to reduce project costs and to increase project revenues. However, the Port Authority’s goal was “self-supporting in the long run,” and so the staff was encouraged to look beyond the current year, and even beyond the current decade in achieving that goal. In addition, since technological change seemed a crucial aspect of twentieth-century transport, thinking at the...

    • 13 More Than “A Humdrum Job of Engineering” Creating a Giant Bus Station in Manhattan
      (pp. 315-356)

      The campaign for a large interstate bus terminal began as a fairly straightforward problem of urban and regional planning. By the early 1930s, with the Hudson River now spanned by bridge and tunnel, bus routes offering direct service from the suburbs of New Jersey were established, and several hundred travelers entered Manhattan by bus each day. They either crossed the Hudson via the George Washington Bridge, six miles north of midtown, or they came through the Holland Tunnel, far below the midtown area; then the buses proceeded slowly for several miles along congested streets to bus stops scattered between 34th...


    • 14 A Regional Empire in American Politics Local History and Its Impact, Leadership Strategies, and Ethical Dilemmas
      (pp. 359-372)

      When the construction dust had settled at the Port Authority bus terminal in December 1950, the residents of the nation’s largest metropolis could look with wonderment—and perhaps with some pride—at what had been accomplished in the past three decades: a new kind of public agency had been designed and put into operation, the hostility of local and state officials and influential corporate groups had been overcome, an impressive set of bridges, tunnels, and land terminals had been constructed, and major improvements in the region’s seaport and air transportation systems were underway. By 1950 the Port Authority’s facilities served...

  13. Epilogue: Triumphs and Travails of an Aging Empire
    (pp. 373-402)

    Nearly half a century has passed since the Manhattan bus terminal received its first passengers and the Port Authority turned to the challenges of the 1950s and beyond. Like the first 30 years of the Port Authority’s life, these decades have been marked by sharp political conflicts, by impressive accomplishments and significant failures, and by periods of drift—when patronage and pork-barrel demands have eroded the agency’s financial and human capital.

    In the pages below, I review the major developments since 1950, which tend to illustrate and reinforce the main themes considered in chapter 14—the tensions between insulation and...

  14. Appendix: THE PORT COMPACT OF 1921
    (pp. 403-410)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 411-554)
  16. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 555-560)
  17. Index
    (pp. 561-582)