Lawmakers Call for Port Authority Reform, Halt to Toll Hikes
Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg co-sponsored the bill to reform the bi-state transportation agency.
Bergen County Democratic legislators were in Fort Lee Sunday calling for “swift passage” of legislation that would require greater accountability and transparency on the part of the Port Authority, calling on the agency to halt further toll increases and promising reform.
Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-37), Sen. Bob Gordon (D-38) and Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37)—all sponsors of the PANYNJ Transparency and Accountability Act (S-1761 and A-1011) —joined other members of the Bergen County Democratic legislative delegation in touting the bill against the backdrop of the upper level tollbooths of the George Washington Bridge.
The act would require regular, independent audits of Port Authority finances and mandate improved financial disclosure rules. It would also require 72-hour notice of public hearings, establish standards for public hearings on toll increases and mandate that at least two-thirds of the agency’s commissioners participate in such hearings, among other provisions.
“We’re here today to make it clear that reform is coming to the Port Authority,” Gordon said. “The public’s rights are and will always be paramount.”
Gordon said commuters are being forced to deal with massive toll increases with “no real chance” to have a say.
“That’s enough of a reason to cancel the next round of toll hikes, but when tolls are set to rise again, and no reforms are in place, that’s double the reason,” he said. “No one should be immune from scrutiny, especially the Port Authority.”
The bill’s sponsors point to a February audit ordered by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo that came in the wake of the first round of toll hikes at Hudson River crossings, calling the Port Authority a “challenged and dysfunctional organization” that failed to control costs and employee pay.
Huttle called the accountability bill “bi-partisan” and “bi-state,” noting that it has support among Republicans in the New Jersey Legislature, and that similar legislation is being pursued in Albany.
“What we’re just trying to do, simply, is to bring oversight to a multi-billion-dollar agency that has been called ‘challenged and dysfunctional.’” Huttle said. “[The Port Authority] has spent months since drastically [raising tolls] defending its actions.”
She said $12 tolls are “certainly offensive,” but that it will become even more of a burden on commuters when they continue to go up, which they will, incrementally, to $15 in 2015.
Weinberg pointed out that 20 percent of those commuters are from Bergen County and criticized the Port Authority for voting in favor of the toll increases before the audit.
“It would seem that our governor should stand up on behalf of Bergen County residents and roll back the next toll increase until that dysfunctional, out-of-control [agency] … gets control of what they’re doing,” Weinberg said.
Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski (D-19), Chairman of the Assembly Transportation, Public Works and Independent Authorities Committee, said commuters shouldn’t have to suffer for the agency’s “lack of oversight, insufficient cost controls and poor capital planning.”
“If the Port Authority is not willing to take control of their finances, somebody must,” Wisniewski said.
The bill has been released by committees in both the New Jersey Senate and Assembly and is awaiting final votes before going to Christie, according to the Bergen County Democratics. Gordon said the Senate will consider the bill this week.