New York, New Jersey governors turn back Port Authority reform efforts

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | 12/30/2014

The governors of two states have vetoed legislation intended to reform the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Instead, they have offered their own plan for fixes.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo acted over the weekend to reject efforts that were intended to improve transparency at the bi-state agency. Multiple bills on the issue were approved by unanimous consent in both statehouses.

New Jersey Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Bergen, said the decision made by both governors demonstrates that they “want to continue the same old scandalous problems at the Port Authority.”

“It’s appalling and disappointing that these basic commonsense bills were not signed into law, especially considering the serious problems we’ve seen at the Port Authority under these governors.”

Among the changes sought by lawmakers: a requirement for the Port Authority to follow the same guidelines for other public authorities in the state; mandatory annual audits; creation of an internal inspector general’s office; and the agency to be subject to the public records laws of both states.

Christie said that while the plan passed by lawmakers was well intended, it misses the mark. Instead, he touted the recommendations released on Saturday, Dec. 27, from a special panel that he and Cuomo appointed.

“The changes proposed in the bill necessarily lack the insights and extensive analysis contained in the special panel’s report, resulting in ideas that are too narrow, and lacking in the changes needed,” Christie said in a veto message.

In a joint statement, the governors said recommendations from the special panel would do more to fix problems at the agency that runs bridges and tunnels that include the George Washington Bridge and the Lincoln and Holland tunnels; the Port of New York and New Jersey; and Newark, LaGuardia and Kennedy airports.

Cuomo, a Democrat, said the new governance requirements sought by lawmakers was drafted before the special panel completed its “comprehensive analysis and conflicts with many portions” of the report.

“The governance structure and other accountability measures recommended by the special panel will do a better job of improving accountability,” Cuomo wrote in a veto notice.

Specifically, the panel recommended restructuring the Port Authority’s top management, board and operations. A chief ethics and compliance officer would also be created. In addition, the agency would be required to follow public records laws in both states.

Another recommendation calls for focusing solely on infrastructure and transportation.

The push for changes at both statehouses follows the implementation of a multiphase toll increase for all vehicles on Port Authority bridges and tunnels. Since 2011, the rate for trucks has more than doubled with another increase slated for December 2015.

The agency’s actions created a backlash. Citing a lack of public input in the decision to increase tolls, lawmakers in both states have been working to improve operations at the Port Authority.

Calls for change heated up again following the unannounced closure of three lanes in Fort Lee in September 2013 that snarled traffic for days on the George Washington Bridge.

Democratic legislators in New Jersey allege the project was political retribution against the Fort Lee, N.J., mayor because he didn’t endorse Gov. Christie, a Republican, for re-election in 2013.

Four officials at the Port Authority have since resigned despite agency claims that the closures were related to a traffic study. However, two investigative reports have since found no proof that Christie knew about the lane closures beforehand.

The agency’s board of commissioners is expected to begin implementing the special panel’s recommendations during their January meeting.

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