Port Authority big claims ‘business as usual’ amid Cuomo scandals

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Governor Andrew Cuomo and the LaGuardia AirTrain.
Screenshot/Port Authority

A leader of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey claimed Thursday that Governor Andrew Cuomo’s sexual harassment scandals are not affecting the agency’s work, which includes several pet projects by the governor.

“It is business as usual here at the Port Authority,” Kevin O’Toole, chairperson of the agency’s Board of Commissioners, said at a press conference in response to a reporter’s question on Aug. 5. “Port Authority is moving forward we don’t listen to too much of the external politics.”

The agency in charge of airports, maritime ports, and several bridges and tunnels on both sides of the Hudson still plans to move ahead with several schemes pushed by the embattled governor, most notably the controversial $2.1 billion LaGuardia AirTrain in Queens.

At the press gaggle following the PANYNJ’s monthly board meeting Thursday, which was marred by technical difficulties making it hard for journalists to ask questions, O’Toole and the Authority’s executive director Rick Cotton ignored a reporter’s question if they think Cuomo should resign or whether they condoned the abuses detailed in State Attorney Letitia James’s explosive investigation that has left the governor fighting for his political life.

James’s blockbuster probe, led by two outside attorneys, found that Cuomo harassed 11 women, most of them on his staff or state employees, and that he fostered a toxic work environment that enabled his misconduct.

Half an hour before the AG’s revelations on the morning of Aug. 3, the governor’s sent out a press release touting the Port Authority’s $3.9 billion, privately-financed new construction of Terminal 6 at JFK Airport.

The Port Authority board approved the public-private deal for which the state will kick in $130 million at it’s Thursday meeting, which O’Toole described as a “gargantuan deal.” The airport extension is slated to start construction in mid-2022 and open its first five gates in 2025, with a full open scheduled for 2027. 

But some of Cuomo’s brainchildren he pushed through the Authority might be in trouble, according to one good government analyst. 

“Any agency that the governor controls or partially controls, there’s going to be a cloud that is ever-present with his scandals,” said Rachael Fauss, of Reinvent Albany. “Particularly with the AirTrain, which has faced significant community opposition, its fate is more uncertain given the governor’s scandals because it was very much his project.”

The executives of both states appoint six members each to the Board of Commissioners and effectively maintain control over projects that happen in their jurisdiction, according to Fauss.

“It’s well understood that there’s separate fiefdoms within the Port Authority,” she said. “The projects within New York are fully understood as being Governor Cuomo’s.”

The AirTrain has been criticized as a boondoggle that will move travelers further away from Manhattan to Willets Point near Citi Field,  but got the green light from the federal government in July and Port Authority executive director Rick Cotton has said they’ll break ground on it this summer.

However, the pricey people mover might be on more solid ground because it has already crossed bureaucratic hurdles, according to one transit advocate.

“They’re far enough in the process, whatever’s happening to Cuomo now most likely won’t affect the AirTrain,” said Liam Blank, a spokesman for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

A Cuomo brainchild that is more in danger of getting the ax if the governor steps down is the Empire Station Complex development plan to reshape the skyline around Penn Station, which is still in its earlier stages, according to Blank.

Another state entity, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which Cuomo controls, abruptly called off a planned press conference the day of the AG report’s release.

The mass transit agency was going to introduce its trio of new leadership appointments: acting chairperson and chief executive officer Janno Lieber, interim New York City Transit president Craig Cipriano, and senior vice president for subways Demetrius Crichlow. 

An MTA spokesman declined to comment whether the AG’s report disrupted the agency’s work beyond the canceled press event, or if Lieber, a Cuomo pick, would call on the governor to resign.