National News

Alan Sagner, Who Revitalized the Port Authority, Dies at 97

Posted January 8, 2018 4:27 p.m. EST

Alan Sagner, a prodigious fundraiser for liberal candidates and causes who served as chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, died Wednesday at his home in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. He was 97.

The cause was cardiac amyloidosis, his daughter Deborah said.

After serving as the finance chairman for Brendan T. Byrne’s successful 1973 New Jersey gubernatorial campaign, Sagner was appointed state transportation commissioner by Byrne, who died the day after Sagner did.

A Democrat and a homebuilder by profession, Sagner headed the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in the mid-1990s. He was the unsalaried chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey from 1977-85.

“Alan was one of the strong, fair public servants of our time,” said Peter C. Goldmark Jr., who was the Port Authority’s executive director during Sagner’s tenure, when it was transformed from a sluggish agency into an energetic vehicle for regional economic development.

“He worked on the political side of the street in other parts of his life,” Goldmark said, “but I only saw him in public service — and he was superb: generous, fair, farseeing and, thank God, with a sense of humor.”

In addition to his government posts, Sagner was a founder, in 1960, of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, which favored self-determination for that country until the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and Fidel Castro’s public embrace of socialism. And he was an investor in The Nation magazine, when Victor Navasky was installed as its editor in 1977.

Sagner was a board member of Business Executives for National Security, a nonpartisan group that seeks to moderate government spending without jeopardizing economic or military security, and an early supporter of J Street, the liberal Washington-based lobbying group formed in 2007 that supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Alan Louis Sagner, a grandson of immigrants from Eastern Europe, was born Sept. 13, 1920, in Baltimore to Samuel Sagner, a men’s clothing manufacturer, and the former Mary Rappoport.

He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland and a master’s from Columbia. He sought to enlist during World War II, but was rejected because he had asthma.

His wife, the former Ruth Levin, died in 1995. In addition to their daughter Deborah, he is survived by another daughter, Amy Pouliot; a son, John; eight grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren. He had a brief later marriage.

Sagner left the family garment business early on to become a homebuilder with Martin Levin, his brother-in-law. He was drawn into politics in 1960 by Gov. Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois, who waged an unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination that year.

At the Port Authority, where he succeeded William J. Ronan, he pressed for expansion of PATH rail service and other mass transit improvements, lost a court challenge to letting the supersonic Concorde land at Kennedy Airport, and supported the modernization of outmoded highways.

In 1984, he and the Port Authority were honored by the Broadway Association for improving conditions in Times Square, near the authority’s bus terminal.

“You have a special problem,” the Rev. Robert G. Rappleyea of Holy Cross Church on West 42nd Street said in his invocation at the ceremony: “The Holland Tunnel, the Lincoln Tunnel and the George Washington Bridge. In fact, you have so many problems you really need Moses.”

Sagner, who was Jewish, replied in kind. “If you could bring Moses back and divide the waters of the Hudson so those traveling could travel dry-shod,” he said, “I might change my religion.”