Journal of Policy History


Cooperation, Capture, and Autonomy: The Interstate Commerce Commission and the Port Authority in the 1920s

Keith D. Revella1

a1 Florida International University

“Historically, geographically, and commercially New York and the industrial district in the northern part of the state of New Jersey constitute a single community,” declared the Interstate Commerce Commission in the New York Harbor case in 1917. In spite of that overwhelming fact, the railroads in the port region had never worked cooperatively to manage New York harbor. Instead, competition led them to invest vast sums in individual terminal facilities and prevented them from using those facilities jointly to solve the urgent transportation problems of the region. This failure to cooperate took on national importance during World War I, when the collapse of service at the port led President Woodrow Wilson to federalize the railroads. In light of the failure of private managers to coordinate their efforts more effectively, the ICC endorsed the idea that dramatic public steps should be taken to encourage greater cooperation among railroad companies: “It is necessary that the great terminals at the port of New York be made practically one,” the commission affirmed, “and that the separate interests of the individual carriers, so long an insuperable obstacle to any constructive plan of terminal development, be subordinated to the public interest.”

With this apparent blessing from the ICC, the New York, New Jersey Port and Harbor Development Commission was created in 1917 to recommend a cooperative, bi-state solution for the port.

Keith D. Revell received his Ph.D. in American history from the University of Virginia. He currently teaches in the Public Administration program at Florida International University.