By Valerie Vainieri Huttle
New Jersey residents commuting to work in Manhattan five days a week now pay more than $3,000 each year because of the monumental toll hikes instituted by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey last fall. This, of course, is on top of gas, parking and other transportation-related costs.
The price of commuting seems prohibitively expensive, especially at a time when our state unemployment rate is still well above the national average at 9 percent, and people have no choice but to take part-time or lower-paying jobs in order to survive in this economy.
Rather than acknowledging this financial strain, Port Authority’s Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni called the cost of tolls “fair” during recent testimony in Washington. And instead of answering Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s legitimate financial and management questions regarding how the toll hike funds are being spent, Baroni deflected by hurling political attacks.
Baroni also insisted that the funds from toll increases are necessary to repair and maintain the transportation infrastructure operated by the Port Authority. Yet, the initial phase of an independent audit described the agency as “challenged and dysfunctional,” and we fear the next report, to be released in June, will show similar waste and abuse.
Does Baroni really believe it is unreasonable for Lautenberg and other legislators to ask where commuters’ dollars are going?
Ultimately, holding the Port Authority accountable for its actions is about enabling toll and PATH fare payers to get to work and earn a decent wage without being crippled by the cost of transportation. It is not an excuse for politics as usual.
While the need for reform seems obvious to commuters across the region, the Port Authority’s leaders, and the governors they take orders from, still do not get it. Rather than take responsibility for its mismanagement, the agency prefers to go after those who question its actions and the need for reform. Baroni has even called the Port Authority Transparency and Accountability Act, bipartisan and bistate reform legislation (of which I am a sponsor) “dangerous.”
Increased transparency and accountability are only dangerous for those who have something to hide. So what is the Port Authority trying to hide from us?
If the agency has its way, in 2015 it will cost $15 to travel over the George Washington Bridge.
Before New Jersey commuters are forced to pay a penny more, the Port Authority must reform its financial and management practices. Because the agency has shown that it won’t do this on its own, the Legislature must pass, and the governors of New Jersey and New York must sign, the Port Authority Transparency and Accountability Act.
Given the repeatedly documented waste and abuse that has taken place at this authority, it is simply not wise to continue letting the fox guard the $7 billion hen house.
It is time for the Port Authority to stop hiding under a veil of political rhetoric and be held accountable for its actions.