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Embattled Port Authority Still Fighting Toll Hike Lawsuit

Transportation experts question impact of soaring World Trade Center costs on agency finances, tollpayers

george washington bridge toll plaza
Credit: WHYY/NewsWorks

While political attention remains riveted on the Bridge-gate scandal that forced the resignation of Gov. Christie’s top two lieutenants at the Port Authority, the bistate agency remains embroiled in a lawsuit challenging the legality of its massive multiyear toll hike. At the heart of the suit is the allegation that toll revenue is being illegally diverted from transportation projects to pay for billions of dollars in cost overruns on the World Trade Center project.

For two years, the Port Authority has been battling to block the release of documents showing its internal deliberations leading up to its controversial September 2011 decision -- jammed through after just one day of hearings -- to raise tolls on the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels; George Washington, Bayonne and Goethals bridges; and the Outerbridge Crossing from $8 then to $13 today and $15 by 2015.

“We’ve been fighting for this information for two years, and we’re still in the discovery phase,” said a frustrated Marta Genovese, AAA New York’s vice president and in-house counsel. Genovese is handling the lawsuit for AAA’s New York and North Jersey chapters in U.S. Magistrate’s Court for the Southern District of New York. “The court ordered the release of the documents in August, but we’re still waiting. We filed another motion last month,” she said.

Genovese said the Port Authority is invoking “attorney-client privilege” to block the disclosure of internal communications with its “clients,” Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. It's also claiming that predecision memos and emails among high-ranking Port Authority officials are protected by the “deliberative process privilege” -- better-known as “executive privilege” when invoked by American presidents.

“The Port Authority is a public agency, but it doesn’t feel it has to answer to the public,” Genovese said.

Critics and Cost Overruns

To the Port Authority’s growing army of critics the AAA lawsuit is important not only as an example of the Port Authority’s lack of transparency, but also because it highlights the difficulty of assessing the fiscal health of the agency in the wake of disclosures that the World Trade Center project is running $4 billion over budget. This assessment is further complicated by the agency’s continued failure to adopt a new capital plan.

“The AAA lawsuit is just another example of the delaying tactic that the Port Authority has been using successfully to block to release of important information,” said Jameson W. Doig, the Princeton University professor whose Empire on the Hudson is the definitive history of the authority. “But it goes beyond that. It is important for the general public and the bondholders to have a real understanding of the financial situation at the agency."

“There is no question that the Port Authority’s fiscal problems with the World Trade Center have been a source of delay on some important projects, including the LaGuardia Airport modernization and the helix project at the Lincoln Tunnel,” he said. “But if there is no capital plan, how can we judge whether there’s a real financial problem or not?”

The Port Authority cited the $11 billion cost of rebuilding the World Trade Center as a major fiscal liability in its 2011 press release announcing its decision to seek a toll increase from $8 to $15 on its six bridges and tunnels. Based on that statement, Genovese said, the AAA expected to win a summary judgment on its lawsuit contending that the Port Authority was illegally diverting toll revenues to non-transportation purposes.

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