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Amid Signs of Consensus, Reform of Port Authority Slowly Moves Ahead

Bipartisan panel agrees new bus terminal needed, but progress on legislation to bring new oversight to agency still proves elusive

port authority bus terminal

A bipartisan group of New Jersey lawmakers that has been closely scrutinizing the Port Authority in the wake of the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal seems to be reaching some consensus on the need for a new bus terminal and possibly even legislation to reform the bistate agency.

The appearance of common ground came at the close of the latest meeting of the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee, which has been holding a series of hearings on the Port Authority in the wake of the Bridgegate lane-closure scandal.

The committee members have been holding up a reform bill that has already been passed by lawmakers in New York, as well as a measure sponsored by Democrats that goes several steps further than the New York version, including requiring tighter legislative oversight of operations and capital planning.

But they could eventually come up with something that is a hybrid of both efforts. Though no lawmaker was willing to fully commit yesterday, their closing comments did offer signs of detente. “I’m confident that we can work this out and get something done that will represent real progress,” said Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen), the chairman of the oversight panel.

The oversight committee has been holding a series of hearings on the Port Authority over the past several weeks, but yesterday’s was the first held outside of the State House in Trenton. The panel took several hours of testimony from a number of witnesses inside the Bergen County administration building in Hackensack.

Last week, several members of the panel also toured the decades-old Port Authority Bus Terminal to see conditions that commuters have long complained about for themselves. There was bipartisan agreement yesterday that a new bus terminal is needed.

Because the Port Authority is a bistate agency, any law changing its operations must be approved by the legislatures in both states and endorsed by both governors as well.

The New York bill has a leg up right now because it has the support of Gov. Chris Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who both rejected an earlier reform measure that was approved by the legislatures in each state last year. The bill, which passed New York’s Legislature over the summer, was based in part on the work of a special panel the governors convened to scrutinize the agency in the wake of Bridgegate. Federal prosecutors have said the lane shutdown was a political retribution plot carried out by two Port Authority officials with ties to Christie and a former member of Christie’s inner circle in Trenton. Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union) is sponsoring a New Jersey bill that closely resembles the New York legislation.

But Democrats in New Jersey have taken issue with the process that was used to develop the New York bill, stressing that there were no public hearings on the measure and that it was hashed out behind closed doors by political leaders.

They are also pushing for a few important additions, such as tightening controls of pots of money considered by some to be agency slush funds.

“There are a few important things we need to tweak or change in the New York bill,” Weinberg said, adding that strong legislative oversight also remains a priority.

Earlier on during the hearing, the panel heard from Dave Gallagher, president of the Port Authority Retirees Association. He said for the most part the agency’s employees are hardworking and conscientious, and that the scandals have been caused predominantly by political appointees.

“To me, the root cause is the inappropriate involvement of politically appointed outsiders,” Gallagher said.

Gallagher also said it’s ironic that a bill passed in New York presumably to make the Port Authority more transparent went through the Legislature there with no public hearing. “I fully support the effort to get it right,” he said.

Nick Lento, a Cliffside Park resident and member of the Progressive Democrats of America, urged the lawmakers to keep pressing for strong reform.

“What we need are reforms that change the way things are done,” Lento said. “Most of the public, I hate to tell you, thinks that there’s a lot of shenanigans going on.” The panel also heard from Philip Mark Plotch, a political science professor at Saint Peter’s University and author of the book “Politics Across the Hudson: The Tappan Zee Megaproject.”

Plotch said his own requests for information from the Port Authority have often been responded to only after lengthy delays. That approach makes it harder for the public to be in the position to evaluate what’s going on.

“The trouble is that the Port Authority isn’t providing us with the information that we need in order to have an informed opinion,” Plotch said.

Also appearing before the committee was Erica Jedynak, state director for the New Jersey chapter of the conservative Americans For Prosperity organization. Jedynak reminded the panel that the Port Authority is spending “taxpayer dollars.”

“This affects regular people who don’t have a voice here,” she said.

No one from the Port Authority attended yesterday’s hearing, but the agency issued a statement saying it remains “committed to its trans-Hudson mission, including addressing bus and rail-transit ridership which have growing importance in regional mobility.”

“As part of that effort, we continue to explore options for the replacement of the current Port Authority Bus Terminal,” the statement said.

Port Authority officials are expected to attend the committee’s next hearing, which has yet to be scheduled.

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