New Jersey nears Port Authority reforms

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | 11/11/2014

A pair of bills in New Jersey to reform the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey are one step away from the governor’s desk.

The Assembly State and Local Government Committee voted to advance one bill that is intended to improve transparency at the bi-state agency. S2181 awaits further consideration on the Assembly floor.

If approved there, it would move to Gov. Chris Christie’s desk. The Senate already approved it by unanimous consent.

Sponsored by Sen. Robert Gordon, D-Bergen, and Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Englewood, the bill would require the Port Authority to follow the same guidelines for other public authorities in New Jersey. Specifically, records of the Port Authority and meetings of the board and its committees would be required to be open to the public.

Annual audits would be mandatory for 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. An internal inspector general’s office would also be created.

Gordon said it is time to fix the Port Authority.

“It’s well past time that we bring this agency out of the dark ages to ensure a higher level of accountability and transparency at all levels,” Gordon said in recent remarks.

The second bill to advance from the Assembly State and Local Government Committee would subject the Port Authority to the public records laws of both states. Adherence to the laws would provide the public access to certain internal documents.

S2183 awaits further consideration before the full Assembly. If approved there, it would move to the governor’s desk. The Senate already approved it by unanimous consent.

The push now underway 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 two more increases slated for December 2014 and 2015.

The first of five tolls hikes were approved two weeks after eight public hearings were scheduled on the same day.

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 allege the project was political retribution against the Fort Lee, N.J., mayor because he didn’t endorse Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for re-election last fall.

Port Authority officials say the closures were related to a traffic study. Three officials at the Port Authority later resigned. Investigations into the allegations about the lane closures continue.

Vainieri Huttle said the public deserves to have an agency that makes them a priority.

“As the legislature continues to investigate last year’s unexplained George Washington Bridge lane closures, it’s critical that we address the root of the problem – that this overwhelmingly flawed agency has no sense of accountability whatsoever,” Vainieri Huttle said in prepared remarks.

Lawmakers on both sides of the state line continue to work for changes to how business is done at the Port Authority.

In New York, identical legislation has moved to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s desk to enact the changes in the Empire State. To become effective, lawmakers in both states must endorse changes to the bi-state authority.

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