Trade Imbalance

When Mike Bloomberg first proposed a land swap with the Port Authority – you give me ground zero, I’ll give you the land the airports are on – people on all sides (at least publicly) said, “Gosh, we can do this! We can work together.” But if optimism quickly segued to suspicion, that’s because in reality, this idea isn’t about working together at all. It’s the same old bad blood between the city and the Port Authority, just manifesting itself differently.

Back at the start of his second term, Rudy Giuliani looked at La Guardia and Kennedy – two of the most outdated metropolitan airports outside the Third World – and decided that they were attractive fixer-uppers. So, Rudy being Rudy, he launched a P.R. assault against the Port Authority, which runs them, for funneling airport profits into money-losing New Jersey operations like the path train. Having duly charmed his adversary, he put forth a modest proposal: Sell us both airports for $2.5 billion. The sale would have meant giving up the biggest cash cow the Port Authority has ever had. It was an offer they could, and did, refuse.

He wasn’t the first mayor to despise the Port Authority. While city officials have fulminated at the authority for paying outrageously low rent on the airport land, the monolithic PA has barely blinked, indulging its expansionist whims unapologetically in New Jersey. Says Wilbur Ross, the financier who structured Giuliani’s buyout offer, “Notice how there’s a very good train to the plane at Newark, and the one being planned here is just a complicated Rube Goldberg thing.”

Meanwhile, back in Manhattan, both Bloomberg and the PA are, naturally, worried about how their legacies will be affected by what takes place at ground zero. “If things continue the way they are,” one Bloomberg aide threatens, “the Port Authority will lose the sympathy they’ve gained in the last year and once again be viewed as an obstructionist entity that doesn’t care about New York City.” One senior PA official has admitted that it would be a relief to be rid of ground zero – but he also sees the value (to the city) of having the PA as the politically bulletproof villain in the lower Manhattan saga. No matter what is built, someone’s going to take a lot of heat from the families; why not someone who doesn’t have to get re-elected?

Even if the swap ended up being good for ground zero, would it make New York a better place for people to fly? (There’s a certain shortsightedness to the exchange: The airports represent our future, the twenty-first century’s Ellis Island, while ground zero is largely about memorializing our past.) The mayor thinks he can wrangle not only a payment for the swap but also quality control over the airports even after the trade – “something like the MTA, where the mayor gets to appoint members,” says one City Hall source. Of course, it’s not like the PA is terribly motivated to help the airports now. “If I’m the Port Authority,” says Ross, “and I worry about having to give up the airports when the lease ends in 2015, what incentive would I have to paint the place?”

After September 11, people thought about working together more – even Giuliani and Pataki mended fences. But this proposal really represents the end of thinking about New York as a region, and the beginning, perhaps, of municipal isolationism. It could turn out to be the biggest civic divorce settlement of all time: In one fell swap, we could lose the airports forever.

Trade Imbalance