Port Authority Reform: Dems Say, ‘Take It Slow,’ GOP Argues ‘Pick up the Pace’

John Reitmeyer | September 25, 2015 | Politics, Transportation
Legislators must decide whether to craft a comprehensive bill or push ahead with something that will be agreeable to governors of New Jersey and New York

Thomas Wright, president of the Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit regional-planning agency
With two lengthy hearings on proposed Port Authority reforms now under their belts, New Jersey lawmakers find themselves facing a key question.

Should they take their time and craft a comprehensive reform bill that addresses everything from the Port Authority’s ethics rules to its operational procedures, while also beefing up legislative oversight?

Or should they move swiftly like their counterparts in New York and accept a less-rigorous measure that would still make many meaningful changes — and also be acceptable to the governors in both New York and New Jersey?

Right now, that dilemma has divided lawmakers on the state Senate Legislative Oversight Committee. They’ve listened to hours of testimony from a diverse group of experts who’ve offered their critiques of the bistate agency that in recent years has hiked commuter tolls with little public input and spawned Bridgegate, the now infamous George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal.

Democrats hold a majority on the panel, which held its latest hearing on the Port Authority in Trenton yesterday. They favor taking a more deliberate approach, while Republicans are calling for speedy action. More hearings are scheduled next month in Bergen and Hudson to ensure commuters have a chance to weigh in as well.

Yesterday’s hearing, meanwhile, also came as lawmakers from both parties did find common ground on one key issue involving the Port Authority: The planning — and funding — of a new Hudson River commuter tunnel that will take pressure off the existing 105-year-old tubes currently used by trains to travel between North Jersey and Manhattan.

The New Jersey Senate voted 38-0 yesterday in support of a bipartisan resolution that endorses an agreement hammered out between Gov. Chris Christie and Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York earlier this month. It calls for a 50 percent funding commitment from the federal government for the Gateway project in exchange for a 50 percent commitment from New Jersey, New York, and the Port Authority.

And the hearing also came as the Port Authority met in New York, with commissioners reportedly discussing plans to build a brand new bus terminal in midtown Manhattan to replace an obsolete 1950s-era facility that’s long been the source of loud complaints from commuters.
Though no final agreement was reached on a bus terminal, Democrats on the oversight panel said the discussions demonstrate that their advocacy for New Jersey commuters seeking a new tunnel and improved bus terminal have been effective.

That’s why, they argued, a bill that goes further than the one that swiftly cleared New York’s Legislature in June is needed to ensure strict legislative oversight is written into the law.

“The reform bill, I think the most important aspect of it that I think was missing from the New York bill, is the requirement that the Legislatures from both states have hearings, that the Port Authority be required to come before them,” said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen).

Such an addition would keep pressure on the agency, both now and into the future to maintain its focus on key regional transportation priorities, she said.

“Writing it into the law is an extremely important step forward,” Weinberg said.

But doing so will mean sending a bill back to New York that is different from the one lawmakers there have already passed on a bipartisan basis, threatening to hold up a broader reform effort that right now needs only support from lawmakers in New Jersey to go into effect.

That’s because, as a bistate agency, a law changing Port Authority operations must be approved by the legislatures in both states and endorsed by both governors as well. Christie and Cuomo rejected an earlier reform measure that was approved by both legislatures last year, and an override attempt in New Jersey failed earlier this year. The new reform legislation approved in New York was based in part on the work of a special panel the governors convened to scrutinize the agency in the wake of Bridgegate, and it has been billed as a compromise, hybrid measure.

“It has been clear for many years that the Port Authority has needed reform,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union), a cosponsor of the resolution urging the federal government to accept the governors’ Gateway funding proposal.

“This has taken too long. The taxpayers and the commuters need certainty and we should move with speed and alacrity to get this hybrid legislation done because the taxpayers and the commuters need that certainty, need that transparency,” Kean Jr. said.

One of the witnesses who addressed the hearing yesterday also spoke to the urgency of getting a reform measure to the finish line. Thomas Wright, president of the Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit regional-planning agency, said getting a bill with some strong reform elements through the New York Legislature was no small task.

“My first recommendation to this committee would be to not jeopardize the reform efforts,” Wright said. “As you know, to have standing over future Port Authority functions any bill will need to be adopted by the New Jersey and New York state legislatures, either by veto-proof majorities or in a form that is acceptable to both governors.”

“As someone who works on both sides of the Hudson River, I want to warn this committee about the complications of getting things done in Albany,” Wright said.

But others urged the committee to make sure a final version of the reform measure puts tight controls over an agency that, according to federal prosecutors, allowed two former Port Authority officials with close ties to Christie and a former member of Christie’s inner circle in Trenton to use the George Washington Bridge to settle an alleged political vendetta.

Gail Toth, executive director of the New Jersey Motor Truck Association, said her organization supports the New Jersey version of the reform legislation, which goes further than the bill that has already been passed in New York.

“Hopefully you’re going to get a really great model designed here and use it for all the rest of the bistate toll agencies because we are really pricing ourselves out of the market from a freight perspective,” she said.

Toth also echoed the calls for more legislative oversight of the Port Authority, especially when the agency wants to hike tolls, which already can cost as high as $95 per-trip for truckers, she said.

“We think that before there are any final votes at the Port Authority on major issues and changes, that if there’s going to be a toll increase as a result of those things, that they should have to go before the New York and New Jersey legislators,” she said. “Invite the public and let the Port Authority explain and prove that they need that rate increase.”