Reforming the Port Authority: The ‘Other’ Problem That Won’t Go Away

Almost three years after Bridgegate, NJ and NY lawmakers still have no direct oversight of agency that’s about to embark on multibillion dollar projects

george washington bridge
When state lawmakers headed out of Trenton last week for their summer break, they left unresolved the whole issue of funding for the tapped-out Transportation Trust Fund. But that wasn’t the only transportation problem that remains to be sorted out: The Legislature has yet to take action on a bill reforming the embattled Port Authority that Gov. Chris Christie conditionally vetoed. And the governor wants to see some action.

And while there will be considerable pressure on Christie and lawmakers to quickly resolve their TTF stalemate over tax cuts in return for a 23-cent increase in the gas tax, the impasse on how aggressively to make changes at the Port Authority in the wake of the Bridgegate scandal could last much longer, possibly through the end of the year.

According to Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) lawmakers still have months before they must take action on the governor’s recommendations, and they want to get the reform effort right.

“We’re still reviewing (the conditional veto),” Weinberg said during an interview on the floor of the Senate.

The lack of accord on the Port Authority means only in-house changes adopted in the wake of the lane closures at the George Washington Bridge in 2013 are in place almost three full years later. It also leaves legislators in both New Jersey and New York without direct oversight of the bistate agency just as it prepares to take on several multibillion dollar projects. These include building both a new bus terminal and a new commuter-rail tunnel.

Democrats who control the state Legislature explained their lack of action last week by saying they are taking time to fully review all of the recommendations Christie made in a conditional veto of their own legislation in May. But a leading Republican in the State House said the Democrats are wasting valuable time by holding off a final vote on Christie’s recommendations.

And also on the to-do list is working out a deal on transportation funding since the last finance plan for the Transportation Trust Fund expired last week. A bipartisan group of lawmakers in the Senate prefers passing along with the proposed gas-tax hike a package of new tax cuts that includes phasing out the estate tax. But Christie and leaders in the Assembly say they would rather see a sales-tax cut swapped for the gas-tax hike. Negotiations between the two sides have already begun, with the bipartisan Senate proposal serving as the starting point.

Enacting any legislation that impacts the Port Authority is a complicated task because it requires approval from the state Legislatures in both New York and New Jersey, as well as endorsements from the governors of each state. But the 2013 lane closures and the unfolding of the Bridgegate scandal provided significant momentum for reform after federal prosecutors accused two close Christie allies who worked at the authority and a former close aide in Trenton of carrying out a political retribution scheme against the mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie’s reelection campaign that year.

Christie himself has denied prior knowledge of the alleged plot, and he has not been accused of any wrongdoing. The trial for two of his former allies on federal corruption charges is scheduled for later this year. Another erstwhile member of Christie’s inner circle, former Port Authority Chairman David Samson, could plead guilty as early as this week to a charge related to a special flight arranged between Newark Liberty International Airport and South Carolina, where Samson owns a vacation home.

In the wake of the Bridgegate scandal, a Port Authority reform bill was passed by the legislatures of both states unanimously, only to be vetoed by both Christie, a Republican, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, in late 2014. The governors said they instead preferred the recommendations of a report drafted by a panel of experts that they asked to look at the agency. And last year New York’s Legislature passed what was billed as a hybrid measure incorporating those recommendations and the reforms sought by lawmakers; Cuomo later signed that bill into law.

But lawmakers in New Jersey balked at that effort, saying there needs to be more direct oversight of the agency at the legislative level, especially since it is pursuing the new bus terminal in Manhattan and playing a key role in the federal government’s Gateway rail-tunnel project. A New Jersey bill that easily cleared both houses of the Legislature earlier this year gives lawmakers subpoena power over the agency. It also reinserted language applying to internal investigations that’s spelled out in agency collective-bargaining agreements that had been removed from the New York version.

Christie, however, issued a conditional veto back in May, suggesting a host of changes that would make the New Jersey bill match the New York version. He also said tough oversight requirements that are also in the New Jersey bill could force the agency to spend millions on redundant outside audits.

“This and similar provisions that increase the costs of Port Authority projects and operations through duplicative oversight, notice, or hearing requirements are detrimental to the toll-paying public,” Christie wrote in his veto message.

But legislative leaders in the Assembly and Senate, where the bill originated, failed to take up Christie’s recommended changes on Thursday during the last voting sessions that were on the current legislative schedule. Had they simply adopted Christie’s changes, the reforms would have only had to go back to Christie for a final sign off before going into effect.

Weinberg indicated that wasn’t a vote on Christie’s changes because legislative leaders are still going through them.

But Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union) said the lack of action is “really bad for the taxpayers and the commuters of the region.” Kean Jr., who is sponsoring a New Jersey version of the New York bill, wants to see the reforms that would be put in place under his own bill adopted immediately. They include creating the position of chief executive officer to replace the current leadership arrangement, which involves an executive director and deputy executive director serving as political appointments of the governors.

“The majority party is simply wrong to not allow it to advance,” Kean Jr. said.

He also suggested Democrats are likely under pressure from unions to oppose any version of the reform bill that doesn’t include the language applying to internal investigations.

Christie’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the issue yesterday.