Strip Port Authority of its secrecy, then overhaul it: Editorial

By the Star Ledger Editorial Board

The Port Authority was a rogue agency long before its rotten underbelly was exposed in the Bridgegate scandal. An agency whose mission was to improve transit in the New York City region has morphed over the decades into a sprawling and secretive arm of the two governors, a way for them to dispense patronage jobs and fund pet real-estate projects without any of checks and balances that apply in the rest of our democracy.

That’s why Bridgegate happened. And that’s why drivers will soon pay an outrageous $15 toll to cross the Hudson River. If you are mad at that, you should be. Bold reform is urgently needed, and the Legislature is poised to take a first important step in that direction this week.

This is no small problem. The Port Authority’s budget is bigger than that of 26 U.S. states. It does most of its business behind closed doors, brushing aside the public’s right to know with an arrogance that is breathtaking.

Its commissioners refuse to attend public hearings on toll hikes and often refuse to even appear before state legislatures. They swat away requests for public records. And all along, they've failed to carry out routine repairs on bridges and tunnels, while throwing millions at the governors' pet projects.

The result is that the cost of the average commute to Manhattan is now higher than the average income tax burden in our state. We’ve got to end this madness.

On Thursday, New Jersey lawmakers will vote on a crucial bill that would force important changes. It can only take effect if both states enact precisely the same legislation, so the chief sponsors, Sen. Bob Gordon (D-Bergen) and Valerie Vainieri-Huttle (D-Bergen), have worked with colleagues across the river for months to hammer out details.

This reform would pry open Port Authority’s books to public scrutiny and require it to submit to an annual audit. It would protect whistleblowers from retaliation. It would require Port Authority officials to reveal any conflicts of interest, and attend all public hearings on toll hikes.

This is a no-brainer. Both states should vote "yes.”

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Once that is done, a second round of reform is clearly needed. Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), has long resisted incremental reform, arguing that it should all be done in one fell swoop. But he’s finally yielded on that point, and has put forth compelling ideas for the next stage.

He wants to expand the Port Authority’s transportation reach, redefining its boundaries and throwing out the airports, and put an outright ban on any real estate dabbling by the agency. He wants to strip the governors of their veto power over Port Authority actions, and half their appointments to the board of commissioners. Most importantly, Wisniewski wants to restructure the Port Authority leadership to end the toxic rivalry between the two states.

This is what enabled the Bridgegate lane closures in the first place. Patrick Foye, the executive director from New York, had no inkling of the scheme being carried out by officials on the New Jersey side. Even after he discovered it, he was unable to fire the chief culprit, David Wildstein, simply because the guy was a New Jersey appointee.

To fix that, the agency must be run like any rational organization: Not as a two-headed monster, but as a lean agency run by a single executive director chosen by the commissioners.

Our hope is the Legislature holds hearings on Wisniewski’s far-reaching reforms. But first, it needs to put the common-sense reforms proposed by Gordon and Huttle in the bank. That vote, scheduled for Thursday, will mark a turning point.