N.J. Democrats restart effort to overhaul Port Authority

Matt Freidman NJ Advance Media

After a holiday season veto and a failed override attempt in March, New Jersey's Democratic lawmakers are restarting efforts to overhaul the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

State Sens. Robert Gordon and Loretta Weinberg and Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (all D-Bergen) on Wednesday announced the broad points they plan to include in a new bill to revamp the troubled $8 billion agency.

"The Port Authority needs major systemic reforms that will put an end to the problems that led to the Bridgegate scandal and the secret machinations behind the massive 2011 toll hikes," Gordon said in a statement. "Unfortunately, Republicans refused to join with us in voting to override the governor's veto six weeks ago. But we have been holding discussions with our fellow reformers in the New York Legislature on new legislation that we hope will be enacted."

The Democrats said the new legislation would contain several "key provisions" from the original bill, which had passed all four legislative bodies in New York and New Jersey without opposition before being vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on the Saturday between Christmas and New Years.

Those provisions include requiring a four-year capital plan, annual reports on the plan's progress, new disclosure and bidding standards for real estate sales, greater transparency when considering toll hikes, giving legislative committees the authority to call Port Authority officials to testify, stricter financial disclosures for officials and whistleblower protections.

"The new bill will also modify the senior management structure to provide for a unified chain of command, and a mechanism to assure that each state has equal influence in policy making and budget decisions," Vainieri Huttle said in a statement. "The sponsors from both states have just begun to evaluate the various organizational options and are conferring with outside experts."

The Port Authority faced increased scrutiny from lawmakers after it hiked tolls at its Hudson River crossings with little opportunity for the public to weigh in on the decision, and after what The Star-Ledger and other media outlets reported was a coordinated campaign to deliberately inflate the proposed hikes to make the actual ones more acceptable.

Then Port Authority employees and Christie administration aides closed access lanes to the George Washington Bridge, tying up traffic in Fort Lee, causing the biggest scandal of Christie's career and renewing focus on the agency.

To become law, the bill would once again need to be approved by the New Jersey and New York state Legislatures and be signed by both governors.

The Democrats said that they're already discussing the new legislation with New York lawmakers and that "sponsors on both sides of the Hudson are open to changes that will improve the bill's chance of ultimate passage."

Not mentioned in the Democrats' press release was state Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr.'s (R-Union) own legislation to overhaul the agency that he said was a compromise with a better chance of becoming law.

After the override attempt failed in March, Gordon did not rule out working with Republicans but said that his own bill — not Kean's — would be the starting point for a compromise.

"While I have not seen the legislation, it is obvious that the Democrats now recognize that the only model that will truly reform the Port Authority is the hybrid one that I have been advocating for since last December and introduced as legislation.