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Lawmakers outline plan to make Port Authority more accountable

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: New Jersey Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle joined forces with a New York State counterpart this afternoon to launch a bi-partisan, bi-state effort to hold the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey more accountable to citizens.

NJ State Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle; NY State Sen. Andrew Lanza (CLIFFVIEWPILOT.COM photo)

Both states needs to strip the agency of many of its quasi-public privileges because, Vainieri Huttle said, it “bears a tremendous amount of responsibility and has the ability to significantly impact the lives of thousands of commuters every day.”

It “can mean the difference between whether a job is even affordable for a person to commute to anymore,” she said. “The public deserves sufficient opportunity to weigh in and have their concerns heard.”

It’s a point she’s made before — only now the Democratic lawmaker has notable help from not only the other side of the river but the other side of the political aisle. 

“The Port Authority’s most recent round of toll hikes were unwarranted, unreasonable and unfair,” New York State Senator Andrew Lanza said, during a news conference near the Port Authority’s New Jersey facility at the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee.

“New Jersey and New York have the two highest state-local tax burdens in the country,” Lanza said, “and before requiring already overburdened families and businesses to pay more, the Port Authority should have looked harder to find internal savings.

“Audits issued by New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, as well as other media reports, showed numerous areas where the Port Authority failed to contain costs and appropriately manage its finances.”

The Port Authority isn’t a public agency with the power to tax. It doesn’t receive funding from local or state governments. Its revenue comes from everyday people – through tolls, fees, rents and the operation of various facilities.

In what might seem an impossible setup to some, it essentially is run like a private business, but with tax-exempt debt capacity associated with government agencies. It can allocate money however and wherever it wants, free from the kind of public scrutiny that would cut some of those appropriations off at the knees.

The only two people on the planet who hold day-to-dayy power over the authority are the governors of New York and New Jersey. Each one, with the approval of his or her state Senate, appoints six members to the Board of Commissioners, who serve voluntary, overlapping six-year terms “at the pleasure” of their benefactor.

Christie has the ability to veto any action taken by the New Jersey commissioners, nullifying their votes, but not by Cuomo’s appointees, and vice versa.

Making the situation dicier for commuters, the commissioners tend to be power brokers with close ties to their governors.

Quasi-public bodies were first created nearly a century ago, with the authority to dictate their own terms – no matter the public sentiment or price – and answerable only to their respective governors.

There’s a loophole, however:

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey can be made more transparent and accountable if legislatures in both states approve nearly identical measures. Vainieri Huttle and Lanza early this afternoon laid out a joint blueprint that they said, if approved, would curb abuses of taxpayer dollars such as were detailed in an August audit report released by the New York Comptroller showing that the Port Authority spent nearly half a billion dollars in overtime costs the past five years.

Under the proposed laws:

1. The Port Authority must conduct at least 10 public hearings between both states no less than 30 days before voting on any hikes in fees, tolls, fares or other charges for the use of the tunnels, bridges and other public facilities. One of each session must be held in the county or counties directly affected by the increase, so that citizens can participate.

Any amendents to those hikes must involve another round of public hearings similar to the first — and be called no fewer than 15 days before a vote;

All sitting Port Authority commissioners must attend the public hearings. No more than one hearing may be held in a single day, and at least half of them must be scheduled outside normal business hours, so that people have a fair opportunity to attend.

2. An independently certified annual audit must be conducted, with the results published on the Port Authority’s website. That audit must account for overtime usage and expenditures.

3. There must be an independent needs assessment for any proposed increases, in concert with the most recent audit.

4. Independent efficiency studies must be conducted regularly.

5. Fiduciary responsibilities for authority commissioners must be clearly defined.

6. Financial reports must be certified by the authority chairman, vice-chairman, chief financial officer, executive director, and deputy executive director.

“Despite being home to half of the Port Authority crossings, the Port Authority originally scheduled only one public hearing on Staten Island, early in the morning, in a remote, inaccessible location,” Lanza said.

“To add insult to injury, the voting members of the Port Authority Board did not even have the decency to present themselves before the people at these hearings, making it clear that they do not consider themselves accountable or answerable to the public whom they serve. Board members should be required to present themselves before the people any time such exorbitant hikes are considered.”

Peak tolls have jumped to $9.50 for E-ZPass users and $12 for cash customers on the authority’s six bistate bridges and tunnels, from $8.

The figures are going to keep rising, to $12.50 and $15 for E-ZPass and cash users.

The authority says the boosts are necessary to help fund a $25 billion capital plan, including redevelopment of the World Trade Center site.

The New York and North Jersey chapters of Triple-A this week filed a federal lawsuit to block the toll hike, charging that it violates federal law by using toll money to pay for non-transporation related projects.

A Bergen Community College last week filed his own suit in federal court, alleging that the recent toll hikes are civil rights violations that keep him from seeing family, finding a better school and getting a job in the city (SEE: Port Authority sued in federal court).

Both lawmakers were joined today by colleagues from their respective legislatures.

“The Authority’s glaring lack of transparency in adopting the latest toll increase proposal is just as disturbing as the toll increases themselves,” said state Sen. Charles J. Fuschillo, Jr. (R-Merrick), chairman of his state’s Senate Transportation Committee. “Residents deserve far more openness and accountability from the Port Authority.

The PANYNJ, which turns 100 next year, operates not only bridges and tunnels (except for those run by similar agencies) but the PATH, the big bus terminal in midtown Manhattan, and airports and seaports in both states. That includes the massive Port Newark-Elizabeth Marine Terminal, one of the country’s – if not the world’s – largest and busiest.


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