Senate Panel Approves Port Authority Reform Bill

Paul Nichols, Bergen Dispatch 

The Senate State Government Committee today approved compromise legislation sponsored by Senator Bob Gordon, Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg and Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle to guarantee legislative oversight of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey as it undertakes construction of a new Port Authority Bus Terminal, the new Gateway Rail Tunnel and other projects critical to the region’s future.

The new legislation, S-708, incorporates all of the management, ethics and transparency reforms included in the New York Port Authority bill that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed last month, but also provides legislative oversight, capital project monitoring and labor protection provisions negotiated over the past several months with New York Assemblyman James Brennan (D-Brooklyn), the lead sponsor of the New York bill. Brennan today lauded the compromise and pledged to introduce identical legislation in New York.
 
“Transportation experts who testified before our Legislative Oversight Committee last fall were unanimous in calling for continuing legislative oversight of the priorities, operations and fiscal management of the Port Authority,’ said Senator Gordon (D-Bergen/Passaic), who chaired the committee. “Legislative oversight is public oversight. It is the best way to ensure that the legitimate transportation priority needs of the region are met, and the only way to hold Port Authority officials publicly accountable for policy choices and management performance.”
 
“With the Port Authority taking the lead on construction of both the new Port Authority Bus Terminal and the Gateway Rail Tunnel, it is more important than ever that we provide proper legislative oversight on major agency construction projects to ensure that they come in on time and on budget,” said Senator Weinberg (D-Bergen). "We owe it to the hundreds of thousands of toll payers, the hundreds of thousands of passengers who use the Port Authority's airports, and the citizens of both states to get it right.”
 
“I’m glad that we are building a consensus on true reform that will benefit all of New Jersey,” said Assemblywoman Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen).  “This legislation is comprehensive in nature and tackles the key elements that we have been concerned with – incorporating legislative oversight, fiscal safeguards, transparency and accountability.  Cumulatively, these provisions will help transform an agency once mired in waste, abuse and scandal into one that operates with the best interests of tri-state commuters in mind.  I’m pleased that this is being made a priority as we start the new legislative session.”
 
Gordon, Weinberg and Vainieri Huttle praised Brennan, who has been the driving force on Port Authority reform legislation in New York, and his staff for working closely with them on compromise legislation, and Brennan applauded the New Jersey efforts.
 
“Over the past few months, my office has been working closely with New Jersey legislators to develop supplemental provisions to New York's recently passed PANYNJ reform law,” Brennan said. “This additional language is a fair compromise of ideas between our two states and I am glad to see that the New Jersey State Senate is advancing a measure reflecting these changes today.
 
“It is my intention to introduce a bill containing this addition language in New York in the very near future. I look forward to continuing to work with all parties to ensure that a bi-State bill bringing much-needed reform to the Port Authority becomes law soon,” he said.
 
The Senate State Government Committee approved the bill by a 3-2 vote. The legislation now goes to the full Senate for approval.
 
The compromise legislation gives the New York and New Jersey Senate and Assembly the right to require the appearance of the Port Authority’s chair or vice-chair, chief executive officer, chief fiscal officer and any other staff for up to two committee hearings each year before each legislative body.
 
“Port Authority officials were concerned our original bill had no limit on the number of hearings,” Gordon said. “Allowing New Jersey Senate and Assembly committees to hold two hearings each provides sufficient opportunity to hold separate hearings in each state not only on the overall capital budget, but on specific projects such as Gateway or the new bus terminal during the course of a year.”
 
The compromise legislation includes a section suggested by New Jersey transportation experts that requires the Port Authority to give 60 days’ advance notice and to hold public hearings in each state prior to the adoption of a new 10-year capital plan, and to conduct a public hearing every three years providing a capital status update on the progress and costs of all projects.
 
The bill also requires independent monitoring of all capital projects costing more than $500 million – a category that would include the new Port Authority Bus Terminal, the Gateway Rail Tunnel and other major projects.
 
The legislation also includes 60 days’ notice of the issuance of debt by any subsidiary corporation set up by the Port Authority, an important requirement with the Port Authority likely to set up a subsidiary in conjunction with Amtrak and the U.S. Department of Transportation to build the Gateway Tunnel.
 
The bill also includes language requested by Port Authority unions requiring investigations to be conducted in accordance with procedures established in existing labor contracts.