John Reitmeyer, NJ Spotlight

Empire State Assemblyman Jim Brennan says New Jersey bill strengthens the one passed by New York Legislature

A New York state legislator joined three New Jersey colleagues yesterday on a bluff in Fort Lee overlooking the George Washington Bridge to urge Gov. Chris Christie to sign Port Authority reform legislation that was sent to his desk several weeks ago.

The joint news conference was designed to exert maximum public pressure on Christie, who quietly vetoed a prior reform effort that had won unanimous support from lawmakers in both states over the holidays in late 2014. Christie could either veto the current bill or issue a conditional veto that would convert it to match one passed in New York and introduced in New Jersey by Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union).

The location of the event was picked to serve as a reminder of the 2013 lane closures at the bridge that clogged traffic and delayed emergency service responses in Fort Lee for several days. The lane closures spawned the scandal known as “Bridgegate,” which helped thwart Christie’s 2016 presidential ambitions and also inspired what’s become an ongoing effort in both states to reform the bi-state agency.

What remains to be seen now is whether Christie, a second-term Republican, will once again reject reforms preferred by a majority of state lawmakers or send them back recommendations based on another bill that has already been adopted in New York.

And what happens next is important because the Port Authority is getting ready to take on several new multibillion-dollar projects, including the building of a new flagship bus terminal in Manhattan and the creation of a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River.

“You only get one good shot at getting things done,” said Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen) during the news conference yesterday at Fort Lee Historic Park. “That’s really what’s behind our strategy.”

Gordon is one of the primary sponsors of the reform bill that lawmakers sent to Christie several weeks ago after it won overwhelming support in both the state Assembly and Senate. The bill would force the agency to make several major changes, including adding more oversight on issues like toll and fare increases and substantial new capital projects. The Port Authority would also be required to become more transparent.

The reform measure incorporates all of the language that’s in the bill that has already been passed by lawmakers and signed into law in New York by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. But it goes several steps further.

For example, it would impose more legislative oversight on the Port Authority, and it would reinsert language applying to internal investigations that’s spelled out in agency collective-bargaining agreements but was removed from the New York bill.

Yesterday, the sponsor of the New York legislation, state Assemblyman Jim Brennan (D-Brooklyn), said he prefers the New Jersey bill and has already introduced an identical version in his own state. That’s crucial because any new rules applying to the Port Authority must be passed by the legislatures in both states and signed into law by both governors.

“The bill before Gov. Christie now strengthens the New York bill,” Brennan said.

New York lawmakers work on a six-month schedule, but Brennan said there would still be time to act in New York if Christie were to enact the more rigorous New Jersey reform bill. Christie is facing a May 23 deadline to take action, the New Jersey lawmakers said yesterday.

“Gov. Christie can get this over with, get this behind us,” Brennan said.

Reached later, Christie spokesman Brian Murray pointed to a piece of reform legislation that’s also been introduced in New Jersey that mirrors Brennan’s original New York bill. That legislation, Murray noted, has already been “adopted in New York and has been awaiting action by New Jersey’s Legislature.”

Murray also said the bill includes the reforms that Christie and Cuomo endorsed in late 2014 when each governor vetoed an earlier reform bill that had unanimously cleared both houses of the legislatures in New Jersey and New York. The vetoes were issued by the governors on a Saturday between the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

Christie now has several options, including accepting the Democrats’ bill unchanged or issuing a conditional veto that turns it into the Kean legislation. He could also suggest other changes or simply reject the Democrats’ bill outright.

Kean said in a statement yesterday that by not allowing his bill to come up for a vote, the Democrats are blocking reforms that could be put in place almost immediately.

“Passing my Port Authority reform bill is still the speediest, most effective way to enact critically-needed and long overdue reforms,” he said. “The people of New Jersey and New York have waited long enough.”

But Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) said Christie needs to adopt the stronger bill to make sure the Port Authority stays on the right path as it takes on construction of the new bus terminal and works with the federal government on the new tunnel as part of the broader Gateway project. The total cost of the two projects combined is estimated to be at least $30 billion.

“It is the obligation of both New York and New Jersey to ensure that the transportation needs of this region are met,” Weinberg said. “We need to protect the commuters whose hard-earned money is supposed to fund regional transportation infrastructure.”

Brennan’s presence in New Jersey yesterday also underscored the importance of getting the reform effort right for residents in both states on what may turn out to be a “last attempt” at reform, said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen).

“This is something that’s so important, not only to the constituents in New Jersey, but to the residents of New York as well,” she said.