YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: A judge has ruled that a Bergen Community College student suing the Port Authority over the recent toll hikes doesn’t have to pay court fees. Yoel Weisshaus of New Milford this week also filed formal requests for information about a reported luncheon meeting of Governors Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo just before the increases were announced last month.
Yoel Weisshaus (CLIFFVIEW PILOT photo No re-use without direct hyperlink)
Weisshaus told CLIFFVIEW PILOT that he proved to a federal judge in the Southern District of New York that he cannot afford the fees connected with his case – which itself argues that the Sept. 18 toll hikes amount to civil rights violations that keep him from seeing family in Brooklyn, finding a better school and getting a job in the city.
Weisshaus’s lawsuit alleges an “abuse of power” by the Port Authority “for increasing the toll considering that there was an absence of advance notice to public hearings and the revenues of the toll hikes will be used to fund the construction of the World Trade Center, a project that is not related to crossing the Hudson River.”
The increases, as originally proposed, were higher until Christie and Cuomo said they’d spoken with the authority’s commissioners, some of whom they appointed. It was only later that reports of a July 29 luncheon meeting of the two men emerged.
Weisshaus cited news reports that both governors “dined at the Beacon Restaurant” in Manhattan before the hikes were announced. Christie has told reporters the two never discussed the toll increases, which he said he learned about while at work in Trenton.
Weisshaus said details of the luncheon, once released, will “reveal to the public what really compelled the governors to go along with the Port Authority and increase the toll prices.”
His requests to the governors’ offices this week demand “all communication that the governors had about their decision-making” involving the toll hikes. That includes “the process, time and manner that were used … to conclude that the Port Authority’s decision to increase toll price[s] are just and reasonable.”
Weisshaus also wants to know who paid for what, what time each governor got to the luncheon and what time each of them left. What’s more, he wants the Port Authority to release all correspondences with the governors regarding the toll-hike process.
Weisshaus, who has been out of work since November 2009 and is representing himself in the case, said the increases “are targeted to restrict minimum wage earners the right to travel.” Authority commissioners have been able to use the Hudson River crossings “like an ATM machine” by boosting tolls at will.
He wants the judge to rule that the Legislatures in both states be required to vote on further increases and that the increased revenue not be used for “pet projects not related directly to building and maintaining bridges and tunnels.”
If the quasi-public authority’s actions remain unchecked, he said, its commissioners “will continue to increase the prices of toll excessively,” hurting those too poor to afford the river crossings, keeping him from seeing his family, denying him access to a four-year university where he could pursue a forensic accounting degree and preventing him from finding work in the city. This, Weisshaus said, “infringes on the rights of the people to pursue happiness.”
The past several years, Weisshaus has been administrator of the Union of Rabbis, a charitable educational and scientific organization that looks to help Jewish people build a better life. He is pursuing an A.S. in Business Accounting, with a real estate law minor. He has served as a student representative with BCC’s Council Committee for the President, investigated textbook conflicts, and headed the school’s Technology Subcommittee, overseeing the BCC website, its online college and its web marketing.
The Port Authority’s purpose, he reminded people, is to make commerce and travel between the two states “easier and more affordable, by replacing the burden of traveling by water to land.” However, in addition to the burden it places on drivers, the toll hike has forced fare increases for using private bus companies, car services and other means of transportation, the suit filed by Weisshaus says.
The American Automobile Association is suing the Port Authority, as well, alleging that the increases breach a federal law that requires interstate tolls be set at “just and reasonable” rates, according to a statement released by the agency.
“Clearly, drivers are already paying more than their fair share — and they are doing so at a time when federal, state and local authorities are hard pressed to meet routine road and bridge maintenance needs,” Marta Genovese, AAA New York’s vice president and counsel, said. The increases are paying for the World Trade Center rebuilding and not for infrastructure, the AAA says.
The Port Authority said the AAA complaint is “without merit.”
It now costs E-ZPass holders $7.50 during off-peak hours and $9.50 during peak hours to get out of New Jersey. Everyone else now pays $12.
The tolls will continue to increase every December for four years.
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