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Samson returning Port Authority to its roots by growing economy through transportation investment

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David Samson has a creative way to finance the Goethals Bridge replacement. That's key for an agency with less capital capacity than in the past.
David Samson has a creative way to finance the Goethals Bridge replacement. That's key for an agency with less capital capacity than in the past. - ()

The days of trying to build 100-acre business parks are long gone for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Just ask David Samson.

Halfway through his term as its chairman, Samson said the agency is refocusing on core projects — like the Goethals Bridge replacement — and finding creative ways to finance them for the future.

It's a far cry from the Port Authority's better-capitalized days, when it took on projects like the Teleport office park in Staten Island, N.Y., and other "projects that weren't really weren't best suited for its expertise," Samson said.

"Those make sense if you have nothing but cash and you're concerned about job creation and economic development — as we are," Samson said. "When you have limited financial resources, you need to take a step back and say, 'What is our core mission? How could we best maximize and utilize our limited resources?'"

That mission is focusing on investment in transportation infrastructure.

At the Goethals, which connects Elizabeth and Staten Island, the Port Authority has hired private firms to build, finance and maintain a new structure over 40 years, allowing the agency to maintain control of the operation and repay the developer over decades, through tolls.

"We didn't have enough capital capacity to do everything in a traditional way that the Port Authority had done before I got there," Samson said. "So what we've tried to do over the last couple of years is look at more creative financing methods."

The high-profile job of guiding the bistate agency is one that suits Samson. In the 40 years since cofounding one of New Jersey's largest law firms, Wolff & Samson P.C., he has been a top aide to governors of both parties. That's led to a variety of influential posts, such as general counsel to the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and attorney general, but few match the scrutiny faced as chairman of the Port Authority.

"He came in the middle of a fire," said Anthony Sartor, a 14-year Port Authority board member, noting Samson's first year in 2011 included the steep toll hikes that led to intense backlash for the agency.

But Samson embraced the ensuing calls for transparency and the audits that were ordered for the quasi-independent agency.

"He hit it head on, as was requested by both governors," said Sartor, chairman and CEO of the engineering firm PS&S, in Warren. "At the end of the day, when the reports ultimately came out … they got a better feel for who we were and what we're doing."

And he's made those strides without abandoning his West Orange law firm, where he still spends half his time, he said.

Samson said he actively supervises high-profile cases with clients like Triple Five, the developer of the American Dream Meadowlands complex that's ensnared in a legal battle with the New York Giants and Jets.

And such a balance of private and public responsibilities was especially tough as Gov. James McGreevy's top law enforcement officer a decade ago, said Edward Deutsch, co-founder of the law firm McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter.

"As attorney general, you have to step out of the firm, so you're stepping away for some period of time from an organization you built, in a situation like David's," said Deutsch, also an adviser to Gov. Chris Christie. "That's not an easy thing to do."

For Samson, there remains at least one constant between his law practice and government work.

"Sadly for a lot of people, I'm not interested in retiring," Samson quipped, adding that he intends to work full-time "as long as I can. … If you can keep being refreshed and stimulated with new things, new challenges, new issues — I consider myself very lucky."

Such challenges, and "the opportunity … to get some things accomplished," were key selling points when Christie tapped him for the Port Authority job in 2010, Samson said.

"In the past, other governors had asked me to do things, and when I agreed to do them, I found them really rewarding, and I was very happy that I had done them," he said. "I thought this would be the same kind of experience, and it turned out to even be better."

He's already finding satisfaction at the Bayonne Bridge, the site of a $1.3 billion project to raise the span. A project to widen the Panama Canal to allow supersized cargo ships to pass through will be a boon to commerce, but the bridge is too low to accommodate the ships. The structure is being raised so the port doesn't suddenly become obsolete.

That project has become a feather in Samson's cap, especially given its history and his push to return the authority to its heyday.

"People have been talking about elevating the roadway of the Bayonne Bridge since Governor (Brendan) Byrne was in office," Samson said, comparing it to thr merger between Rutgers and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey that was completed in July. "Everybody knew that was the right thing to do. Sooner or later, you had to do it."

E-mail to: joshb@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @joshburdnj

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