The Port Authority gave itself a big raise Thursday, approving hikes in tolls, fares and fees at its bridges, tunnels and airports to raise money officials say is needed to pay for big capital improvements.
The Board of Commissioners of the bi-state agency voted unanimously in favor of the plan, despite opposition from many members of the public who contributed to some 1,300 comments the agency received on the proposed increases.
The opponents were similarly represented among those who attended the board meeting in Jersey City.
“We have some major issues here,” said Peter Franco of Bayonne. “The increase, the financial impact on some of the working-class people, is a concern to me. You’re reducing peak and off-peak discounts, you’re increasing bus tolls, putting a bigger burden on NJ Transit.”
Port Authority officials said they needed the extra $5 billion in capital funds to pay for several improvement projects — including a new AirTrain and terminals at Newark Liberty International Airport, and plans for a new bus terminal in midtown Manhattan.
“If you want a world-class facility and you want a safe facility, we have to pay for that,” said Kevin O’Toole, the former North Jersey state legislator who now serves as the board’s chair.
Rick Cotton, executive director of the Port Authority, said the agency realized that the increases were unpopular but necessary.
“We don’t want to impose increases,” he said. “In fact, we get most of revenue from [our] business partners — not from tolls, not from fares. But we must, on the other hand, support investment in our aging, legacy facilities.”
Officials said they tried to spread the pain. Cash tolls will rise $1 at bridges and tunnels for cars, to $16, and a reduction in the E-ZPass discount with push those fares up by $1.25. Multiple-ride passes on PATH, which handled seven millions riders in August, will climb by 19%. Air Train fares will go up to $7.75 on Nov. 1.
A $1 hike in the toll for buses, to $14, drew fire from state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, who said NJ Transit literally can’t afford it.
“For those of us concerned with increasing trans-Hudson capacity, raising tolls on NJ Transit to pay the Port is quite literally robbing Peter to pay Paul,” said the Bergen County Democrat, noting that the mass transit agency is facing an $81 million deficit in 2021. “You are charging a public corporation that carries 500,000 people back and forth each day.”
The agency also implemented a new airport-access fee for ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, as well as taxi drivers, that goes into effect in October 2020. Uber already pays the City of Newark $1 million a year for access to the airport.
Drivers had lobbied the agency for improved access at the airport to make their work easier.
“It’s important for us to go out there and make some money,” said taxi driver Victor Salazar. “I truly hope that we will not be, through the years, neglected.”
“We are going to keep all those commitments,” O’Toole said. “So we have heard you because you are part of our family.”
Gov. Phil Murphy said he supports the capital projects. “These efforts will have long term benefits to New Jersey commuters and have a positive economic impact to our state,” he said.
The tunnel and bridge toll hikes start Jan. 5. In the future, they’ll be indexed to rise with the cost of living.