Opinion: Here’s how we’d fix the Port Authority

Record Op-Ed by Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Senator Bob Gordon

Bob Gordon is the state Senate majority conference leader and represents the 38th Legislative District of Bergen and Passaic Counties. Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle represents the 37th Legislative District of Bergen County.

LAST SEPTEMBER, the George Washington Bridge remained gridlocked for three days in what would become an infamous and scandal-plagued affair.

One year later, as we continue to understand who is responsible and why it happened, we are no closer to fixing the agency at the center of the controversy, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

On Oct. 1, PATH fares will rise again. In December, tolls will increase to $14 for a single ride across the GWB. And the Port Authority is still known as a hub of waste and secret deals.
The Record suggested that the most important task remaining for the various investigative bodies is to learn the role played by the two governors. While that may be true, it is not the only job we have to do. Without a doubt, the greatest task before us is to reform the Port Authority.

Over the last year, working in partnership with key New York legislators, we have begun moving comprehensive accountability legislation through the state legislatures of both New Jersey and New York, as required to make any binding changes at the Port Authority.

In June, shortly before they adjourned for the year, both houses of the New York Legislature passed our bills — unanimously. That fact deserves emphasis. The proposed remedies were so compelling that when the bills went to the floor, every representative in Albany voted “yes.”

One measure (S2183/A3350), already approved by the New Jersey Senate, will greatly increase the transparency of Port Authority decision-making by subjecting the agency to the public record disclosure laws of both states. Scrutiny by the press has been critical in revealing the agency’s misdeeds. This bill will provide a new, more powerful tool for reporters and private citizens alike.

A step forward

Our other initiative, (S2181/A3417), the “Port Authority Transparency and Accountability Act,” is taking its first, much-needed step forward this week with consideration Thursday by a Senate committee. The bill will overhaul and modernize the operation of the Port Authority, including its Board of Commissioners. Among other things, the bill would:

-- Require an independent needs assessment before any toll increase, and at least six public hearings, attended by commissioners, at times and places convenient for commuters.

-- Open meetings to the public, require that commissioners vote on each agenda item separately, rather than in a sometimes vague package, and require that the public have access to commissioners’ meeting agendas at least 72 hours before a meeting.

-- Require an independent efficiency study every two years.

-- Require the agency establish new controls over the disposal of property, especially for property sold below fair market value.

-- Require all employees to report any suspected corruption, criminal activity or conflicts of interest to a newly empowered Port Authority inspector general; the inspector general is to establish whistleblower protections to facilitate employee reporting.

-- Prohibit a commissioner from discussing or voting on any matter in which there may be a conflict of interest.

-- Require the agency to develop a capital strategy plan that specifies upcoming projects and the expected cost and sources of funding, and issue an annual detailed report on operations and finances, including indebtedness and compensation of senior staff.

-- Finally, at the request of either legislature, and for the first time, the senior leadership of the Port Authority would be required to appear before legislative committees and respond to questions.

Some think the reforms outlined above represent a piecemeal approach and that we should postpone any action until we redefine the agency’s mission and change the way the senior leadership is selected. But delaying reform is wrong and the residents of New Jersey deserve better than that.

Supervision required

Every day that we wait to join New York in passing these bills is another day that we allow the Port Authority to carry out public business without any say or supervision from the public.

Our reforms will open the agency to greater scrutiny, reduce political influence and help restore the reputation of an organization once known for its professionalism, but now known as a patronage mill.

We believe that had these protections been in place at the Port Authority, many of the recent problems never would have occurred. Perfection should not stand in the way of achieving the good. New Jersey must reform the Port Authority now.