Two Lawmakers Want Answers About Port Authority Toll Hikes [AUDIO]
In legal filings this month in response to a lawsuit, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey admits none of the money from the recent toll increases at the Hudson River Crossings will be used for the World Trade Center.
The public was originally led to believe that bridge and tunnel toll hikes were needed to help pay for redeveloping the World Trade Center. It turns out the extra money isn't going there after all and that has at least two Democratic state lawmakers seething.
Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle has been calling for increased transparency and oversight for some time, but in light of reports of mismanagement and abuse and the recent toll hikes enacted with little public input, she believes New Jersey and New York must hold the Port Authority accountable and make reform an urgent priority.
Vainieri Huttle says, "The Port Authority bears a tremendous amount of responsibility and has the ability to significantly impact the lives of thousands of commuters every day. For several years I've been pushing for a system of greater accountability to ensure that hard-earned taxpayer dollars are being used efficiently and with the proper amount of oversight."
This Monday, Vainieri Huttle plans to introduce a bill that she hopes will create a new system of accountability at the Port Authority. Laws governing the bi-state agency do not take effect until New Jersey and New York have enacted substantively identical legislation which is why a New York legislator has already introduced a measure.
The package of reforms is designed to ensure the proper functioning of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey as an open, transparent, and accountable interstate authority and to crackdown on abuses of taxpayer dollars like those detailed in an August audit report released by the New York Comptroller showing that the Port Authority spent nearly half of a billion dollars in overtime costs over the last five years.
The Assemblywoman is calling for at least ten public hearings on the recent toll increases and she wants Port Authority commissioners to be there to hear from the public. Vainieri Huttle says a toll hike is a tax hike, "Can we roll back the tax hike? Maybe. In 2011 on their (The Port Authority) website they said there would be no toll increases…….. Significant hikes can even mean the difference between whether a job is even affordable for a person to commute to anymore. The public deserves sufficient opportunity to weigh in and have their concerns heard."
Democratic Assemblyman Gary Schaer wrote to Governor Chris Christie yesterday asking the administration to immediately investigate whether the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has repeatedly misled the public after the latest revelation that the agency no longer intends to use funds from the recent toll hikes to rebuild the World Trade Center site, a claim the agency initially made numerous times when requesting the hikes.
"If true, some of the actions taken by the PANYNJ appear to be abusive to commuters and business people, many of whom are concentrated in my own Bergen and Passaic County legislative district," Schaer notes in his letter. "Respectfully, I ask on behalf of my constituents, that your Administration, in concert with the State of New York, immediately investigate what has obviously and unfortunately become a recurring pattern of behavior at an independent authority critical to the economic viability of our region……At a time of historic lack of public faith in the institutions of government, this behavior continues to undermine the public's trust,"
Christie's spokesman would not comment.
The Port Authority says none of the money from the toll increases will be used for the World Trade Center but will instead be used for the agency's Interstate Transportation Network that includes bridges, bus terminals and other transportation buildings. The filings came in response to a lawsuit filed by AAA of New York and New Jersey, which tried unsuccessfully to stop the increases from taking effect in September. In the suit, AAA argues that the World Trade Center is not a transportation center and, therefore, the toll increases are being illegally collected to pay for it.
"They seem to be contradicting themselves about what the toll hike money would be used for," Robert Sinclair, a spokesman for AAA New York, said Wednesday. "The World Trade Center should be built, but not using toll revenue when you have 80-year-old bridges and tunnels considered functionally obsolete, and in some cases structurally deficient."
Vainieri Huttle's bill also calls for annual independent audits of the Port Authority. She says her proposals are designed to create a better system of accountability over the Port Authority's massive operations, which include Newark, LaGuardia, and Kennedy airports; the Port of New York and New Jersey, which is the leading marine cargo port on the east coast of North America; the PATH mass transit system; the World Trade Center; and numerous bridges and tunnels, including the George Washington Bridge and the Lincoln and Holland tunnels.
The bi-state agency's website says, "The Port Authority is committed to the highest standards of accountability and transparency. Over initiatives include posting an advance listing of items on the agenda, opening up more meetings to the public, disclosing reasons for discussing or acting upon matters in executive session, webcasting all public meetings, and providing for public comment at the public Board meeting."
AAA (triple-A) sued the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey over the toll hikes. AAA says it objects to using toll revenues for building the new World Trade Center. Port Authority board members have said the fare increases will pay for construction that's fueling the region's economy.
In September, Yoel Weisshaus of New Milford filed a lawsuit over the toll hikes. He claims the increase is an abuse of power and discriminates against him because he is poor. Weisshaus feels the tolls are targeted to restrict minimum-wage earners and will be used to complete the World Trade Center project instead of improving bridges and tunnels. The the unemployed Bergen Community College student, who frequently visits
his grandparents in Brooklyn, has asked the court to waive filing fees because he can't afford them. He is representing himself.
Cash tolls on the George Washington Bridge, Holland Tunnel, Lincoln Tunnel, Goethals Bridge, Bayonne Bridge and Outerbridge Crossing went up from $8 to $12 in September and they are scheduled to go up 75-cents a year from 2012-2015.
Meanwhile officials say an audit will take a closer look at Port Authority employee compensation and why costs are rising to rebuild the World Trade Center. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered the examination as a condition of toll increases that they approved in August. It was due to be completed within 90 days.
The agency's commissioners say the audit will look to limit money-losing projects and find new revenue sources.