Separate measures that would end perks enjoyed by Port Authority of New York and New Jersey employees and help assure toll-payers that their money is being spent responsibly received the Senate Transportation Committee's endorsement Monday.
The Port Authority, which runs area bridges, tunnels and transit hubs and owns the World Trade Center site, has been tarnished by audits showing rising employee compensation, excessive overtime and ballooning debt. The bistate agency's finances came under scrutiny in August when the board approved steep toll increases at New Jersey-New York crossings that outraged many commuters.
A bill eliminating free tolls, sports tickets and other perks was approved with little debate. The measure would impose new restrictions in the wake of reports of patronage and perks for Port Authority executives. A similar bill cleared an Assembly transportation panel earlier this month. Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni, who attended the hearing, said the agency had already eliminated free EZPass, reduced the size of the workforce and hired an auditor.
A bill increasing the agency's accountability to the public also was approved, over the staunch objection of Baroni, a former state senator known for promoting good-government legislation. Baroni, a Republican appointed to the port by Gov. Chris Christie two years ago, called the oversight bill unnecessary and said executives and Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo were already committed to cleaning up abuses at the authority.
"I think this bill is redundant, short-sighted, deficient and dangerous," Baroni said, asking the panel to hold the proposal until it could be substantially reworked. "The real problem is passing a bill that would put in jeopardy significant, multi-billion-dollar projects that the Port Authority is undertaking."
Baroni's most strenuous objection was to a provision in the bill that would require board meeting agendas to be set five business days in advance. He said the provision would stifle last-minute deals from being struck that have brought thousands of jobs and billions of dollars to the region. For example, he said a deal with a shipping company to build a $500 million terminal at Port Newark that created 350 construction jobs could have been lost if the parties were required to wait up to six weeks to get on the agenda to seal the deal.
Sen. Bob Gordon, the bill sponsor, said he wasn't persuaded to pull the bill. It passed 3-0 with one abstention.
"We needed to get their attention, and I think we've done that with this vote," said Gordon, D-Fair Lawn. "If there are changes that are necessary to remove any impediments to negotiation, I'm all for that. I view that as a technical change."
Part of the bill mandates more of an effort be made to solicit public input before future toll increases are adopted. For the toll hikes that were approved last year, public hearings were held on a single day, and many people complained they were at inconvenient times and places.
"I think it was important to send a message to the Port that you just can't schedule public hearing at 8 in the morning or in places that natives of the area can't find," he said.
Baroni said more than 1,500 people weighed in before the most recent toll and fare increase, far more than when Christie's predecessor, former Gov. Jon Corzine, increased tolls.
Similar legislation is working its way through the New York Legislature.
New Jersey and New York would have to enact substantially similar legislation for the laws to become effective at the agency.