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Tougher New Law for Cleaning Up Port Authority on Way from NJ Democrats

Legislation for overseeing troubled agency already signed by Govs. Christie and Cuomo, but sponsors of new measure argue more is needed

port authority bus terminal
The Port Authority bus terminal

Democratic lawmakers in New Jersey say a new piece of Port Authority reform legislation they’re advancing through the state Legislature offers the best hope for controlling the scandal-tarnished agency just as it’s preparing to launch some of the region’s most important transportation projects.

The measure (S-708), which is the first to gain committee approval during the state legislative session that began last week, goes several steps further than another piece of Port Authority reform legislation that was signed into law last month by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

For example, it would require Port Authority officials to regularly appear before lawmakers in both New York and New Jersey. It would also enhance oversight of the agency’s capital-planning process.

Those additions, Democratic sponsors in New Jersey say, are key to making sure the reform effort is done properly. The effort began after a series of unpopular toll hikes were approved in 2011 and later picked up steam as the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal unfolded in 2014.

But Republicans have countered that by calling for changes that go beyond those already endorsed by Cuomo and Gov. Chris Christie, New Jersey Democrats are unnecessarily holding up reforms that they say would still meaningfully upgrade the agency’s transparency and management. Any changes to the Port Authority’s governing rules, they note, must be adopted by the Legislatures in both states, but also be signed into law by the respective governors as well.

Meanwhile, a key New York lawmaker has endorsed the newest version of the reform legislation that New Jersey lawmakers advanced last week. New York Assemblyman James Brennan (D-Brooklyn), the primary sponsor of the legislation that’s been passed and signed into law in New York, said in a news release that he plans to introduce legislation with the new language proposed in New Jersey “in the very near future.”

“This additional language is a fair compromise of ideas between our two states and I am glad to see that the New Jersey State Senate is advancing a measure reflecting these changes,” Brennan said.

At stake going forward is just how much change will come to an agency that was rocked by the 2014 Bridgegate scandal as it now gets ready to spend an estimated $10 billion to replace its flagship Manhattan bus terminal.

The Port Authority is also preparing to play a key role in overseeing another $20 billion project that will result in the building of a new Hudson River commuter rail tunnel that’s been dubbed Gateway.

In addition to those upcoming projects, the Port Authority also administers most of the region’s key bridges, tunnels, and airports on a day-to-day basis.

Democrats in the New Jersey Senate, led by Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen), held a series of legislative hearings on Port Authority reform last year after lawmakers in New York passed the version of the reform legislation that’s been supported by the two governors.

That bill came together after vetoes were issued by Cuomo, a Democrat, and Christie, a Republican, at the end of 2014 in response to an earlier reform measure that had been approved unanimously by lawmakers in both states.

The subsequent legislative hearings, according to the sponsors of the new legislation, exposed several shortcomings in the New York bill that now need to be fixed. They include no requirement that Port Authority officials be compelled to come before state lawmakers on a regular basis to explain their actions, including capital-planning decisions.

The new bill, which incorporates all of the changes proposed in the New York legislation, would mandate at least two hearings be held before lawmakers each year in both states. And it also removes a change impacting union contracts and collective-bargaining rules that was inserted at the last minute into the New York bill with apparently little awareness among lawmakers across the river. Specifically, that addition would upset the internal-affairs process that Port Authority police officers are now subject to under their labor agreements with the agency.

The changes added to the New Jersey bill are important, given the Port Authority is about to take on the replacement of its bus terminal and play a leading role in the Gateway tunnel project, Gordon said during a Senate committee hearing on the bill that was held on Thursday.

“It is more essential than ever that we have Port Authority reform legislation that ensures that the agency can and will meet the critical transportation needs of the region transparently, responsibly, and efficiently,” Gordon said. Cosponsor Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) also reminded lawmakers that despite some internal changes that the agency has made in the wake of Bridgegate, rules that allowed that scandal and the 2011 toll hikes to occur remain largely the same.

“If we have not required the Legislature to keep that oversight, to call (Port Authority leaders) in to report on a regularly scheduled basis … then I predict this agency will be right back into the same morass that we found in 2011,” Weinberg said.

But New Jersey Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., who also spoke during the New Jersey Senate committee hearing, suggested lawmakers should recognize the new changes will still need the endorsement of both Christie and Cuomo, who have both said in the past that they favor the version of reform legislation that’s already been adopted in New York.

That bill, if enacted, would still make a series of meaningful changes to the rules governing the Port Authority’s transparency and accountability, including revamping the agency’s management structure and upgrading ethics standards, Kean Jr. said. Those changes could be made immediately with the approval of New Jersey’s lawmakers.

“We’re beyond a policy debate on this issue,” Kean Jr. said. “No more excuses. No more delays.”

“New York is not moving forward … the executive branch is not moving forward, beyond what they have done already,” he said.

Kean Jr. also said the added legislative oversight that New Jersey Democrats are holding out for in their bill is already something lawmakers here have the power to order under the state constitution, which gives lawmakers the authority to subpoena Port Authority officials. That power was exercised in late 2013 and into 2014 during the legislative inquiry into the lane closures that was led by Weinberg and Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex).

“We’ve already stood in the way of reform as a Legislature for a year in this regard,” he said. “Any further delay hurts the commuters (and) hurts the taxpayers.”

Sen. Steve Oroho (R-Sussex) said the bills are too similar to delay the broader reform effort any longer.

“To me, we are wasting time,” Oroho said.

Still, Democrats in New Jersey say they are holding firm in their push to make sure the tougher version of the reform legislation is eventually sent to Christie and Cuomo. And several witnesses who testified during the committee hearing last week agreed that their bill is best.

“New Jersey should never be controlled by what New York does,” said Sen. Peter Barnes (D-Middlesex). “If we feel that a certain bill is better, we should move on our bill, not worry about what New York does.”

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