New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Tuesday named a former state lawmaker who was one of his staunchest supporters during the George Washington Bridge lane-closing scandal to chair the agency that controls the region’s airports, bridges and ports and the World Trade Center.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo also named a new executive director at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The joint announcement ended months of uncertainty in the upper levels of management at the powerful bistate agency.
Kevin O’Toole, a Republican former state senator, succeeds John Degnan, who served as chairman since 2014. Cuomo’s special counsel for interagency initiatives, Rick Cotton, will serve as executive director, replacing Patrick Foye, who held the post since 2011.
Christie, a Republican, said he can think of “no one better” than O’Toole to oversee the agency, as the Gateway project to revamp the rail tunnels beneath the Hudson River gears up.
Cuomo, a Democrat, said Cotton has the “experience and tenacity” to move the Port Authority’s major infrastructure projects ahead. He praised Foye for his “tireless commitment to bettering the transportation infrastructure” of the New York region.
In 2014, O’Toole served on a legislative committee investigating the bridge scandal, dubbed “Bridgegate.” A former Christie aide and two former Port Authority officials ultimately were convicted or pleaded guilty to creating gridlock to punish a Democratic mayor who didn’t endorse Christie.
Christie was never criminally charged, and the committee didn’t conclude he had prior knowledge of the scheme. But O’Toole published a blistering minority report in which he called Democratic committee members “some of the most-partisan elected officials in modern times, using public resources to apparently carry out a national Democrat mission to destroy a popular Republican governor.”
O’Toole’s name came up during the trial of former Port Authority executive Bill Baroni and former Christie aide Bridget Kelly.
Former Port Authority official David Wildstein testified he approached O’Toole to issue a statement supporting Baroni’s comments to a legislative committee that the lane realignment at the bridge was part of a traffic study.
Wildstein testified that explanation was a lie to cover up the scheme’s true nature. There was no evidence O’Toole was aware of that at the time.
Emails revealed Foye ordered a halt to the lane closures after he learned about them in September 2013; during the trial, he testified he authorized the publishing of a news release about the traffic jams that he knew to be false.
Degnan and Foye had been at the center of a tug-of-war between the two states over how the Port Authority, which recently approved a 10-year, $32 billion capital plan, should be governed and which infrastructure projects should be given priority.
They squabbled publicly at several board meetings, most notably over plans to build a new bus terminal in New York. Last fall, some New York lawmakers accused Degnan of not negotiating in good faith over the terminal project and demanded he recuse himself.
In a resignation letter to Christie on Tuesday, Degnan said he was proud of his efforts to get the bus terminal project included in the agency’s capital plan, and he stressed the importance of a “total replacement or rebuild of an embarrassing, outdated structure.”
Both men remained in their positions over the last year even as reform efforts in both state legislatures made it likely Foye’s job would be eliminated and Degnan’s would be passed to a New York appointee.
Those changes haven’t officially been adopted because New Jersey legislators haven’t passed a measure similar to one passed by New York lawmakers, as required under the Port Authority’s charter.
Degnan, a former New Jersey attorney general, was nominated by Christie to replace David Samson, who resigned and later pleaded guilty to using his influence as Port Authority chairman to pressure United Airlines to revive a money-losing flight to an airport near his weekend home in South Carolina.