Are Transparency and Oversight Coming to Port Authority at Last?

John Reitmeyer | April 2, 2018 | Transportation
A reworked reform bill and a sympathetic Democratic governor in Trenton could mean progress on an initiative that’s been spinning its wheels since 2011

Port Authority executive director, New York’s Rick Cotton (left) and board chairman, former New Jersey Sen. Kevin O’Toole
For years, state lawmakers have been trying to ramp up oversight of the Port Authority, but to no avail, since any administrative changes must win approval in both New Jersey and New York. This year is shaping up to be different, however: The changing of the guard in the governor’s office and a revamped Port Authority reform bill have improved the chances for success.

The reform measure cleared a key committee in the New Jersey Senate last week, marking the first major advancement in over a year for an effort that was launched in 2011. The sponsors say they have been in communication with counterparts in New York, suggesting leaders in the two states are in alignment.

New Jersey lawmakers also don’t have to worry about former Gov. Chris Christie, who rejected two earlier efforts to enact Port Authority reform. The Republican Christie, whose aides were found to have played a key role in the Bridgegate scandal, was replaced by Democrat Phil Murphy in January.

The latest Port Authority legislation also drops language that called for a significant overhaul of the bistate agency’s power-sharing management structure, a change that should ease concerns among many New Jersey lawmakers who are happy with the current leadership duo of former New Jersey Sen. Kevin O’Toole as board chairman and New York’s Rick Cotton as executive director.

Increased transparency and oversight

The Port Authority legislation still calls for increasing transparency and legislative oversight of the agency, with provisions related to capital spending, audits, engineering reviews, and toll and fare hikes. Those are provisions that lawmakers consider crucial, given the role the agency is playing in major transportation projects like a new bus terminal, and possibly the planned Gateway rail tunnel.

“We need to ensure that the new era of accountability they have put in place is permanent, and that we never go back to the era of secret toll hikes and stonewalling that characterized the agency leading up to and including Bridgegate,” said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen).

Weinberg and other New Jersey lawmakers have been targeting the Port Authority for reform ever since a series of major toll and fare hikes were hastily approved by the agency’s leaders with little public outreach back in 2011. Their effort then took on new urgency several years later in the wake of the Bridgegate scandal, as agency officials initially tried to cover up what were found to be politically motivated lane closures at the George Washington Bridge.

Lawmakers in New Jersey and New York ultimately found common ground on a Port Authority reform bill following the scandal. But Christie wanted to see major changes made to the agency’s executive-leadership structure and was less enthusiastic about the legislative oversight provisions that lawmakers prioritized, ultimately leading to a conditional veto.

That left majority Democrats in New Jersey with the option of concurring with Christie’s conditional veto, but doing so would have meant they would be giving up their push to see many of the oversight protections become law. It also would have triggered a change to the agency’s leadership structure that would have resulted in New Jersey’s governor losing the right, at least initially, to name the board chairman. That’s something the New Jersey lawmakers believed would have jeopardized the future of key projects for Garden State commuters, like the proposed bus-terminal replacement, which has not been a top priority for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

A new ally in Trenton

With the unpopular Christie out of office, New Jersey lawmakers now have a new ally in the governor’s office in Murphy. As a candidate, Murphy promised to improve oversight of agencies like New Jersey Transit and the Port Authority, and he has already shown signs of being a more of a hands-on governor when it comes to mass transit. In fact, Murphy recently appeared in person before the Port Authority’s board to praise its decision to boost wages for airport workers in New Jersey.

Under the version of the Port Authority reform bill that cleared the Senate Transportation Committee last week, transparency and legislative oversight of the agency would be improved in areas related to tolls and fares, and capital spending.

For example, the legislation would require a needs assessment to be conducted 90 days before any toll or fare hike, and no less than six public hearings held at least 30 days before enactment of any increase by the agency’s board. Lawmakers in both states would also have to be notified at least 60 days before the board votes on its latest 10-year capital plan, which is a key document for an agency that has a bigger budget than many U.S. states.

Lawmakers in both New Jersey and New York would be empowered to call Port Authority leaders to appear before them, and independent consultants would have to be brought in to oversee any project with an investment totaling more than $500 million. Whistleblower protections for employees would also be upgraded. A 2015 bill already addressed another key issue the Bridgegate scandal revealed involving public records, with the agency now subject to the public records laws in both New Jersey and New York as a result of that legislation.

But the new version of the latest reform bill, importantly, does not require the agency to swap the current leadership structure for a chief executive officer, with the board chairman’s position then rotating between the two states in two-year terms. Instead, New York’s governor would continue to be responsible for picking the Port Authority’s executive director, and New Jersey’s would retain the right to fill the position of board chairman.

“This is not the time to be making leadership changes considering the tremendous challenges we are facing, starting with the urgent need to increase trans-Hudson commuter capacity before the Sandy-damaged North River rail tunnels fail,” said Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen).

Gordon, who chairs the transportation panel, credited Port Authority leaders for working to update the transparency rules in recent years. But he said it’s important to make those changes permanent as a matter of law, because future leaders may not be as scrupulous as Degnan, O’Toole, and Cotton. The senator also said he has been working with counterparts in New York to line up the reform legislation that’s been under consideration there with his bill, since it takes approval from both state Legislatures and the two governors to enact any changes impacting the Port Authority.

“This is the third time that Sen. Weinberg and I have advanced this bill,” Gordon said. “I’m hoping the third time is the charm.”