New Jersey lawmakers endorse Port Authority reforms

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | 11/17/2014

A bill package in New Jersey to reform the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is headed to the governor’s desk.

The Assembly voted unanimously on Thursday, Nov. 13, to send a pair of bills to Gov. Chris Christie that are intended to improve transparency at the bi-state agency. The bills were already approved by unanimous consent in the Senate.

S2181 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.

Sen. Robert Gordon, D-Bergen, said in recent remarks that “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.”

S2183 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.

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 next month and in December 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.

Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald, D-Burlington/Camden, said the legislation is about implementing “fundamental changes” to restore the public trust, create a more efficient agency and better serve the people of the state.

“As documents regarding the George Washington Bridge came to light, we observed not only an egregious abuse of power but also disturbing practices that suggest the Port Authority truly is broken,” Greenwald stated.

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, D-Bergen/Hudson, said the “breeding ground for wrongdoing” at the agency will end with these bills.

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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