Where’s the oversight?
Joint toll authorities lack public accountability, GAO says

By David Tanner, associate editor

Right up until his death in June, Sen. Frank Lautenberg was adamant in holding the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and three other bi-state tolling authorities accountable for their lack of public involvement and oversight when setting toll rates. A federal study requested by Lautenberg is now complete, and it expands on the concerns of the late senator from New Jersey.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office released its anticipated study in mid-September, shedding light on toll increases, public hearings and the level of accountability for four agencies: the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission; the Delaware River Port Authority; and the Delaware River and Bay Authority.

Truckers may not know these agencies by name, but they know their facilities well.

The George Washington Bridge, which spans the Hudson River between Bergen County, N.J., and Manhattan, N.Y., has gotten a lot more expensive for truckers since the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey opted to increase tolls from $40 per trip in 2011 to $90 per trip by the year 2015. For those keeping score, that’s a 125 percent increase over four years.

Public hearings were limited and virtually off-limits to truckers. A series of hearings were held simultaneously at 8 a.m. on a Tuesday at airports, bus stations and port terminals.

“In their most recent toll increases, the bi-state authorities generally provided the public limited opportunities to learn about and comment on proposed toll rates before they were approved,” the GAO wrote.

In 1987, Congress voted to scale back the U.S. Department of Transportation’s direct oversight of toll authorities, including a provision that required toll increases to pass a “just and reasonable” standard. That left state agencies and auditors-general holding the toll authorities accountable.

“A federal statute requiring bridge tolls to be ‘just and reasonable’ has less influence on tolling decisions, in part, because no federal agency has authority to enforce the standard,” the GAO wrote.

Lautenberg hoped to reinstate DOT oversight by filing a Senate bill in 2011 called the Commuter Protection Act.

U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., filed a companion bill in the House but it did not pass, nor did it make the final cut for the current federal highway funding mechanism known as MAP-21, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century.

Truckers would welcome the additional oversight, said Ryan Bowley, director of government affairs for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. Although the Association did not always see eye-to-eye with Lautenberg, this was an issue they agreed on.

“We’re certainly hopeful that that this legislation will be picked up again by this Congress, and it’s something that we are very much supportive of,” Bowley said.

“The frustrating thing that we’ve seen time and time again with these toll authorities is they are accountable to no one.”

Tolls paid by truckers and motorists on the seven facilities operated by the Port of New York and New Jersey, for example, have been diverted to economic development projects such as the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site.

“These things are done with severely limited public meetings and the ability to weigh in,” Bowley said.

While the GAO study targeted four bi-state toll authorities in the Northeast, similar things could be said of many other tolling authorities around the country, Bowley says.

Tolling has become a popular buzzword in some states, and the public is right to be skeptical of the concept, he adds.

“As states look for any opportunity to add tolls, especially interstate roads and through public-private partnerships, this issue becomes more important,” he said. “This issue goes beyond these four bi-state toll authorities.” LL