Editorial: Don't let Chris Christie block Port Authority reforms

The scandal over corruption at the Port Authority isn't just about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's political career — it matters to every Long Islander who has ever used a Port Authority bridge, tunnel or airport.

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As the smoking hot Bridgegate scandal was torching the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey this past winter, the governors of both states promised big changes in the massive organization that runs our major bridges, tunnels, airports and ports.

Reforms were proposed to squeeze out the political shenanigans, patronage and crony capitalism exposed by September's closing of two access lanes on the George Washington Bridge by operatives of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Since then, however, these ironclad reforms to fix the management, oversight and governance of the Port Authority seem to be stuck in traffic of the partisan, political kind.

The delays came as state and federal investigators and the media revealed a disturbing pattern of Port Authority revenue being diverted to pay for projects in New Jersey outside the scope of the agency's jurisdiction.

The $1.3 billion in tolls collected annually from four interstate bridges and two tunnels proved irresistible to New Jersey. It's the driving public's money, in other words, that Jersey took. These tolls have risen 117 percent since 2007 and are now $13 for round-trip cash payments, with $1 hikes due both in late 2014 and 2015.

The tolls, along with sizable revenue from the region's three major airports, first go toward maintaining those facilities. That revenue also funds money-losing operations such as New Jersey's PATH system and the two Manhattan bus terminals. Airport revenue is being used to help rebuild the World Trade Center, which soon should be profitable once again. Those are legitimate expenditures because public transit and lower Manhattan development are key to the economic vitality of the region.

But in 2010, while David A. Paterson was New York's governor, Christie's appointments pushed through some dubious projects -- including $1.8 billion for a multiyear rebuild of the state Pulaski Skyway between Newark and Jersey City, and state roads connecting to it. Diverting this money allowed Christie to avoid raising his state's gasoline tax to pay for repairs.

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Another questionable deal was the $235-million purchase of 130 acres in Bayonne to expand cargo ports. This overpayment for a waterfront tract, which remains untouched, was little more than a bailout of an almost bankrupt city, relieving New Jersey taxpayers of that headache.

A federal special grand jury in New Jersey is investigating allegations of influence peddling, kickbacks and misuse of funds -- misconduct that ranges far beyond Bridgegate. The Pulaski Skyway renovation and the Bayonne land purchase are being probed by the Manhattan district attorney, working with federal prosecutors. On Thursday, the Port Authority disclosed that the Securities and Exchange Commission is looking at the Pulaski project as well.

So this would seem the perfect time to make changes in the Port Authority's management and governance -- changes in the best interests of the public that also would dilute the control of both governors.

However, last month, Christie and New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo big-footed the authority's own special reform committee chaired by Cuomo appointee Scott Rechler. In a May 6 letter, both governors announced the creation of a superseding panel that includes the counselors to both men, essentially putting their proxies directly at the negotiating table. The panel is to report back in 60 days.

 

The move carries a whiff of gamesmanship by Christie, who fears he could lose control of the agency's spoils. And the delay could run out the clock on the legislative sessions in both states, diminishing the likelihood that key changes in Port Authority bylaws to ensure transparency and disclosure will be incorporated into law and made harder for future governors to undo.

Lawmakers in both states have drafted laws to end backroom deals by mandating ethical and financial disclosures by agency officers. Public hearings and independent audits would be required before toll increases.

There's no need to wait for indictments or reports to know that the Port Authority can no longer be run as a feudal empire built on the backs of the traveling public.

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