State lawmakers are starting to look beyond the ethical issues plaguing the apparently dysfunctional Port Authority, focusing instead on how the beleaguered agency sets its priorities. At the top of their list is the authority’s $1.5 billion plan to extend its PATH train service to Newark Liberty International Airport. The project, coveted by the airport’s major carrier, United Airlines, was put under the microscope during a lengthy morning hearing held yesterday by the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee in Trenton.
And when the hearing ended, several senators called on the Port Authority to suspend the PATH expansion until the conclusion of ongoing investigations into former Port Authority Chairman David Samson’s dealings with the trio of United executives who abruptly resigned this week.
But the PATH extension and the possible link between Samson and the United decision-makers were just part of a larger agenda. Lawmakers probed the status of other Port Authority projects and how progress or the lack thereof might affect the regional economy. They also discussed measures to bring the authority under legislative oversight.
Federal investigators are reportedly looking at whether Samson was influenced by United’s chief executive officer and other officials. One of the alleged offers was a now-canceled flight between Newark and an airport in South Carolina located within an hour of a vacation home owned by Samson. United is also conducting an internal investigation into what’s become known as “the chairman’s flight.”
Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) yesterday pointed to projects like a new Port Authority Bus Terminal or the planned Gateway Hudson River tunnel that have received less attention from the agency than the PATH extension despite their importance to the region.
“One has to question how an extension from Wall Street to Newark airport became No. 1 on a list of priorities,” she said.
“Perhaps there are some merits to it,” added Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen). “But clearly a big winner in a PATH extension from Wall Street to Newark airport is United Airlines.”
The resignations of United chief executive Jeff Smisek and two other top airline officials this week have renewed interest in efforts to reform the Port Authority. And Gov. Chris Christie, a second-term Republican now seeking his party’s 2016 presidential nomination, was also forced to answer questions about the Port Authority and Samson, a close advisor who served as the chairman of his 2009 transition team, during media appearances Wednesday.
It was also two former top Port Authority officials with ties to Christie and a former high-level member of his own staff in Trenton who federal prosecutors have said are to blame for carrying out the September 2013 lane closures on the George Washington Bridge. The three allegedly worked together to punish Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor for not endorsing Christie’s reelection campaign that year, though Christie has repeatedly said he had no knowledge of the plot.
[related]But lawmakers at the hearing yesterday said they want to find out how proposed reforms that are currently before the Legislature would work to put the agency’s focus back on improving the region’s core infrastructure. The Port Authority is in charge of the George Washington Bridge, Newark airport, the PATH train system and most other interstate transportation assets in the region, including the port itself.
To that end, they heard from a panel of transportation-planning experts and advocates who said much-needed regional projects like the new bus terminal in Manhattan or beginning work on new Hudson River rail tunnels have not been made top priorities under the Port Authority’s current leadership.
“We have a system now where folks are operating in silos,” said Anthony Attanasio, a former New Jersey Department of Transportation assistant commissioner who now serves as executive director of the state Utility & Transportation Contractors Association. “Regional-transportation planning is suffering as a result.”
Martin Robins, a former Port Authority planner who also served as deputy executive director of New Jersey Transit, stressed the need for the state Legislature to have strong oversight of the Port Authority going forward to ensure it is not uncooperative.
“There is a very strong need to assure legislative oversight,” Robins said.
An oversight provision that would compel Port Authority officials to appear regularly before the lawmakers is one of the key differences between a reform bill backed by Democrats in New Jersey and another measure supported by Republicans that is nearly identical to legislation that has already cleared both houses of the New York Legislature.
Because the Port Authority is a bistate agency, any permanent changes must be approved by the Legislatures in both states and signed into law by both governors to take effect.
Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth) urged the other members of the committee to give the New York measure a long look since it already has the support of Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and could be signed into law with ease if it passes New Jersey’s Legislature.
“We’re all realists here,” Kyrillos said. He also said the Senate already has the authority to subpoena witnesses to appear before its committees, something that would apply to the Port Authority.
But Weinberg responded by pointing to the Port Authority’s reluctance to appear before lawmakers or even provide them with documents following the agency’s 2011 push to increase fares and tolls with very little public input.
“I think it’s worth fighting for,” added Committee Chair Robert Gordon (D-Bergen).
Gordon said the committee would be scheduling additional hearings to review the proposed Port Authority reforms in the near future. They will likely be held at times and in locations that would be convenient for commuters who use the authority’s bridges and tunnels to get to work, he said.
Asked to respond to yesterday’s hearing and the lawmakers’ criticism of the planned PATH extension to Newark airport, a spokesman for the Port Authority issued a statement that said agency officials are hoping to appear before the lawmakers in the future.
“While late notice of the meeting and prior commitments precluded an appearance today by Port Authority leadership, agency officials are seeking to schedule a future appearance before the Senate committee to discuss topics of interest with members,” the statement said.