The Power of Moses: Please Wield Responsibly

An op-ed piece by Eleanor Randolph in today’s New York Times finds yet another lesson in the current re-examination of Robert Moses’s legacy. Randolph looks at the enormously powerful entities, usually known as authorities, that Moses left behind: "public-private hybrid[s] that can collect fees, take on debt and build things with little government interference."

Randolph points out that despite reforms over the past few years, the most influential authority, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, still operates outside many of the laws that cover government agencies, including public-meeting and freedom of information laws. And, given the enormous importance of Port Authority holdings, she rightly calls for more accountability:

[I]f Lower Manhattan is now being rebuilt under the same system that Moses used to both advantage and disadvantage New Yorkers, today’s authorities must use their power more responsibly. Governor Spitzer should push for more rules imposing transparency and accountability, like requiring authority directors to sign an oath that they will carry out their fiduciary duties responsibly.

For the Port Authority, the New York and New Jersey Legislatures need to finally pass identical laws requiring public access to its enormous public works operations, which are, after all, the public’s business. Mr. Coscia, like many authority directors, now promises "transparency" at some level. But it is worth worrying that future builders might decide, as Robert Moses did regularly, that the best way to respond to public concerns is to send out the bulldozers at midnight.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    The thing that always amazed me in The Power Broker was that Moses was so cozily entrenched in his authorities that it took not one but two Rockefeller brothers to bring him down. If Nelson Rockefeller’s brother David didn’t just happen to be the CEO of Chase Bank, the bondholder for the TBTA, Moses might have remained in power until he died, and possibly even passed it on to a successor who could be building higways today.

    Randolph doesn’t mention the state’s Public Authorities Control Board, which is the only real check on the power of these authorities. Recently, when Speaker Silver has used his seat on the board to rein in one of them (usually the EDC at this point), it’s been framed by the media as “the fate of the project hinges on the nod of one man.” Yeah, only because all the rest have given up responsibility over it.

    These things are creepy and undemocratic, but nobody seems to be willing or able to get rid of them.

  • Nicolo Macchiavelli

    Not for nothing, Moses had nothing to do with Port Authority except as an antagonist and rival. Is it a public authority? Yes. Is the TBTA also?
    Yes. But does that mean that Moses had anything to do with PA? I don’t think so. I think that is called the “post hoc fallacy”.

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