In a hearing today, U.S. Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg admonished the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and its deputy executive director over its tolling practices, saying steep rate hikes are unfair to commuters.
“When I was commissioner (of the Port Authority), the toll to cross our bridges and tunnels was two dollars. In today’s money, that would be slightly more than five dollars,” said Lautenberg (D-Cliffside Park) at the hearing. “But today, Port Authority tolls are out of control. It now costs $12 to cross between New Jersey and New York. When it costs $12 to drive your car across a bridge in America, something is wrong.”
In his testimony, Bill Baroni, deputy executive director at the agency, argued that decades of wasteful spending, drastic cuts in employment, bad real estate investments, high costs of borrowing and declining revenues forced the Port Authority to increase tolls. But Baroni said discounts to E-ZPass users— which he said make up 81 percent of toll payers — make the prices fair.
“A passenger going to work in a car, commuting by car … they’re doing the E-ZPass discounts,” Baroni said. “For someone who doesn’t get an E-ZPass and is backing our traffic up at the Lincoln Tunnel this morning, yes it’s fair.”
According to Chris Plaushin, vice president of public affairs at the American Automobile Association, a recent poll by the association found the public is more supportive of toll increases when their payments are dedicated to improvements in the facility collecting the tolls.
“The public is being asked to pay more and more, and getting less and less,” Plaushin said. “They feel they have no voice in the process, and in many cases, they don’t.”
Lautenberg said the agency redirected $3 billion that was slated for the canceled trans-Hudson rail tunnel to fund non-Port Authority road projects, but Baroni said the road projects would generate the same amount of revenue.
On allegations of political patronage at the Port Authority, Lautenberg demanded the names, credentials and salaries of the 50 people appointed to the authority in January, which he said could have “six-figure salaries and close ties to (Gov. Chris) Christie.” Baroni said he would gladly supply the list to the committee, but noted that it included 11 interns, and that over the eight years since he arrived at the authority in March 2010, there have been 68 political appointees.
“When I showed up at the Port Authority, I was the first Christie person there,” Baroni said. “There was never a hearing then.”
“But you weren’t called dysfunctional at that time,” Lautenberg shot back.
“We know one thing. We have to be careful about how we use these toll revenues,” Lautenberg said. “I thought the 50 percent increase at one moment was an outrage. We’re going to continue to talk … with the Port Authority and ask for particular documents.”
Lautenberg has given the Port Authority three days to supply the detailed list of appointees.