Port Authority Changes Reason for Toll Hike

In legal filings in November, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said none of the money from the toll increases would be used for the World Trade Center.

Remember this summer's bridge and tunnel toll increases that were needed to help pay for redeveloping the World Trade Center? It looks like the extra money isn't going there after all.

In legal filings in November, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said none of the money from the toll increases would be used for the World Trade Center but would instead be used for the agency's Interstate Transportation Network that includes bridges, bus terminals and other transportation buildings.

The filings came in response to a lawsuit filed by AAA of New York and New Jersey, which tried unsuccessfully to stop the increases from taking effect in September. In the suit, AAA argues that the World Trade Center is not a transportation center and, therefore, the toll increases are being illegally collected to pay for it.

In its response, filed in federal court in New York, the Port Authority countered by saying no money from the toll increases would be used for the redevelopment of the World Trade Center — contrary to statements made by the agency going back to August and statements made by both governors.

"They seem to be contradicting themselves about what the toll hike money would be used for," Robert Sinclair, a spokesman for AAA New York, said Wednesday. "The World Trade Center should be built, but not using toll revenue when you have 80-year-old bridges and tunnels considered functionally obsolete, and in some cases structurally deficient."

Sinclair called the justification for the toll increases nothing more than "financial shenanigans."

Neither New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie nor New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who signed off on scaled-back toll increases, is saying anything even though both cited the World Trade Center development as a reason to approve the increases in August.

A spokesman for Christie did not return a call seeking comment. Cuomo spokesman Josh Vlasto referred questions Wednesday about the use of toll increases to the Port Authority.

Asked about the Port Authority's response in the lawsuit, spokesman Ron Marsico said in an email that using toll and fare increases for transportation buildings "makes available other port authority resources to complete hundreds of capital projects that are critical to the region's infrastructure needs, and the World Trade Center."

Lawmakers in both states plan to introduce legislation to require public hearings before the next phase of increases take effect in December 2012.

"I think we deserve to know publicly what the Port Authority's true intentions are to spend this money," said New Jersey Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri-Huttle, D-Englewood, one of the bill sponsors.

In early August, the Port Authority announced a plan that called for more than doubling tolls at some crossings, and said the increases were needed in part for redevelopment of the World Trade Center. The same day Christie, a Republican, and Cuomo, a Democrat, issued a joint statement expressing concern about the plan and suggested they might veto it if the proposal was adopted by the Port Authority's board of commissioners.

A day before an Aug. 18 Port Authority meeting, the governors released their own scaled-back toll increase plan, saying an increase was needed "for the completion of the World Trade Center." Their plan ultimately was adopted.

The governors also demanded a "top-to-bottom" audit of the agency following reports of over-spending, including reports that the agency paid $86 million in overtime last year and paid executives $2 million in extra compensation hidden from the public. In response, the Port Authority formed a special committee to lead the review.

But in a Sept. 19 letter to the governors, Chairman David Sampson said the committee would "retain independent consultants and advisers to conduct a full review of the Authority's past and present governance, management and fiscal practices."

Then Tuesday, the Port Authority announced that two firms had been chosen to "assist" with the audit at a cost of $2.2 million and the committee would be leading the review.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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