NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — The George Washington Bridge is now smack-dab in the middle of another scandal, and it has sparked a call for independent oversight of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey.
The call was made Monday after two newspapers reported on how governors Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo allegedly handled the recent — and controversial — bridge and tunnel toll hikes, CBS 2’s Tony Aiello reported.
“I think it’s increased way too much over the last couple of years,” said Jason Lazu of Fort Lee, N.J.
As CBS 2’s Tracee Carrasco reported, hefty toll prices have been taking their toll on drives since August 2011, when the Port Authority issued a proposal to dramatically hike tolls and fares for Hudson River crossings and infuriated drivers and PATH train riders.
Eventually, Christie and Cuomo rode to the rescue, reducing the planned hikes to a more acceptable level.
But was it all on the up and up?
“It certainly was political theater,” said New Jersey Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri-Huttle, D-Bergen County. “There were political games being played. The commuters should not be suffering for their games.”
Vainieri-Huttle said she’s disappointed but not surprised by reports in two major New Jersey newspapers that revealed how Christie’s top appointees at the Port Authority — Bill Baroni and David Wildstein — managed the toll hikes to make the governors look good, creating a secret “war room” to hide what they were doing and scheduling public hearings at inconvenient times and packing them with union supporters.
Vanieri-Huttle was not alone in her response to the latest claims.
“We thought the process was very strange when it happened,” said Robert Sinclair of AAA. “It is disturbing that two guys were able to do this.”
The hikes prompted AAA to file a lawsuit against the Port Authority.
“It just indicates all the things we are talking about in our lawsuit — that there needs to be an oversight, and that the tolls were unfair, unjust and unnecessary,” Sinclair said.
It is all in line with what CBS 2’s Marcia Kramer reported in 2011, that the toll hike back-and-forth was part of a carefully orchestrated political ballet to give the governors of New York and New Jersey cover for approving any hike at all.
“I believe there’s been a violation of public trust,” Vainieri-Huttle said.
She said she wants a federal monitor to oversee spending at the Port Authority, jointly run by the two governors.
Christie’s dealings there are under the microscope following the controversial George Washington Bridge lane closures, which may have been political payback for Fort Lee’s mayor, who did not endorse Christie’s re-election bid. A former New York lawmaker told Aiello that Cuomo may soon feel the heat.
“The old saying ‘where there’s smoke there’s fire,’ I would hope there’s no fire on the New York side, but I think it’s appropriate for the governor to respond and to say what transpired and what he’s going to do to make sure there’s reforms so this doesn’t happen again,” Michael Benjamin said.
The toll hike deal reportedly allowed the Port Authority to create a $900 million fund that both governors can use for favorite projects.
Even before the reports about the toll hikes, Christie, a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2016, found his administration embroiled in two other controversies. State lawmakers are looking into not only the Fort Lee lane closures — which the governor says he knew nothing about beforehand — and Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s claim that Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno threatened to withhold Superstorm Sandy funds in order to get a development project approved.
On Monday, a lawyer for Bill Stepien, Gov. Chris Christie’s two-time campaign manager who was fired by the governor shortly after the George Washington Bridge scandal erupted, said in a legal brief that his client has a constitutional right not to incriminate himself in a state investigation and cannot be forced to produce documents that might furnish a link in an evidence chain.
The latest revelations have frustrated drivers even more.
“Just the thought of it — it’s not something that sits really well, the fact that we’re wasting our hard-earned money because of some kind of scandal,” Luzo said.
“But after this whole mess with the bridge and the politics that were played to cause a traffic jam here, nothing would surprise,” added Patrick O’Malley of Summit, N.J.
There was no immediate comment from either governor.