Abuse of power suggested after port authority closed lanes, snarled traffic

By David Tanner, Land Line associate editor | Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Senate committee has joined the fight in asking for investigations into why the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey unexpectedly closed three lanes and snarled traffic on the George Washington Bridge during the first week of school in September. Local lawmakers allege that the sudden closure was politically motivated.

Local officials claim that political appointees for the port authority ordered the lanes closed in Fort Lee, N.J., in retaliation for Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich’s refusal to endorse Gov. Chris Christie’s campaign for re-election.

Port Authority officials say they were simply conducting a traffic safety study. Christie has denounced the allegations of political motivations.

The closure was serious enough, however, for state legislative committees to call hearings, demand answers and initiate an inspector general investigation. The flap has also caught the attention of U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Committee on Science, Commerce and Transportation, who sent letters to the Port Authority and to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

Rockefeller points to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report that highlighted a lack of public transparency and accountability within the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. A former member of Rockefeller’s committee, the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, ordered the GAO report as the Port Authority was hiking bridge tolls on the George Washington Bridge and other facilities without much in the way of public input or hearings.

“This latest incident adds to my committee’s existing concerns about the management of the Port Authority,” Rockefeller stated in a letter to Port Authority Chairman David Samson.

“As the nation’s busiest bridge in one of the most complex and congested areas of the country, planning for traffic disruptions of this magnitude would and should require significant involvement from all levels of government with substantial public notice to avoid unnecessary delays and a potentially dangerous safety threat to the public,” Rockefeller stated.

“Perhaps the most concerning are the unanswered questions about why no systems were in place to prevent and immediately correct what appears to be a significant abuse of power by a few appointees.”

Since the allegations surfaced, two officials with the Port Authority have resigned. They are Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni and a subordinate, David Wildstein, the director of interstate capital projects and the official who gave the order to close the lanes.

In a separate letter to Transportation Secretary Foxx, Rockefeller urged the DOT to review the incident and “examine the DOT’s authority to ensure oversight of the agency to prevent future disruptions.”

“While this decision (to close the lanes) tends to be local in nature, I have serious concerns about the larger federal implications of what appears to be political appointees abusing their power to hamper interstate commerce and safety without public notice,” Rockefeller wrote.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey collects tolls on the George Washington Bridge, Bayonne Bridge, Goethals Bridge, Outerbridge Crossing, Holland Tunnel and Lincoln Tunnel, and also oversees bus terminals, airports and airport parking in the region.

Prior to 2011, truck tolls on the George Washington Bridge were $40 for a five-axle truck, but a series of toll increases approved without much in the way of public accountability hiked those tolls up to $100 per trip.

The authority’s public hearings on the toll increases were held simultaneously at 8 a.m. on a Tuesday morning at airports, bus stations and port terminals and made no attempt at truck parking.

The Government Accountability Office called out the authority on that fact and other issues related to oversight.

Members of Congress including Sen. Lautenberg made attempts in recent years to give the U.S. Department of Transportation more authority to oversee bi-state tolling authorities such as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Congress scaled back the DOT’s authority in 1987, including a provision that required any proposed toll increases by bi-state tolling authorities to meet a “just and reasonable standard.”

Truckers would welcome additional oversight. OOIDA supports efforts in Congress that would reinstate the “just and reasonable standard” for toll increases.

See related story:
Joint toll authorities lack public accountability, GAO says

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