The Tolls Are Too Damn High: Public Sounds Off at Port Authority Hearings
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will support a toll hike, but one that is substantially less than originally proposed by the Port Authority, reported ABC News. ABC reported that the governors will support a toll increase of $1.50 at peak hours, and a 25 cent increase on PATH fares.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s original plan included a toll hike on bridges and tunnels into and out of Manhattan by at least 50 percent, along with increases to PATH fares. While both governors agree that there will be some kind of increase, it will most likely be much smaller than the Port Authority’s initial proposal.
On Wednesday, New York Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli released an audit showing that Port Authority paid a whopping $85.7 million in overtime to its employees last year.
“Before the Port Authority asks for more money to fund its operations, the agency should take a long, hard look at whether its business model for managing overtime really makes sense,” said DiNapoli in a written statement.
On Tuesday, transit-minded Tri-State residents on both sides of the Hudson flocked to nine public hearings about the unprecedented fare increases proposed by the Port Authority.
As anticipated, the public hearings were, in polite terms, tumultuous. A meeting on Staten Island Tuesday morning nearly came to blows, as labor unions packed half of the room with members sporting orange shirts, according to the Staten Island Advance. Union members demanded job creation, which the toll hikes would support, and accused toll hike opponents of being unpatriotic (the building of the new World Trade Center site is a Port Authority project).
Staten Island resident Andy Scudera yelled back: “You guys want jobs? Fine. Go get them somewhere else. Not off my back,” the Advance reported.
A public hearing in Jersey City didn’t go any more smoothly, where a similar scene played out, according to the Star-Ledger.
The Port Authority proposed toll hikes on Aug. 5 of 50 percent or more on bridges and tunnels into and out of Manhattan. PATH fares would also increase by $1.
The Port Authority says the fare increases are necessary because of decreases in revenue as a result of the recession, increases to security costs since 9/11, the cost of building the new World Trade Center site and a slew of other vital infrastructure projects, according to a statement from Port Authority President Chris Ward.
The general public was not happy with the proposed solution to the Authority’s financial woes.
NJ.com user FreeAllPeople referred to the proposed hikes as “Tolljacking,” while user V. Markova wrote, “the system is what is messed up. Both Parties (the Democrats and Republicans), have used all of us for individual gain. Hell, a pox on both their houses.”
A commenter on Crain’s New York wrote, “The tolls are too damn high already!”
NJToday looks at the Port Authority toll hikes. As the video shows, yesterday’s public hearings were fraught with strong opinions.
While the consensus among commuters is that paying twice as much to go to work in a weak economy is really frustrating (and other choice terms in the ilk of those above), there are more specific concerns being expressed pertaining to particular regions, as well as various theories about why the Port Authority suddenly proposed the fare hikes.
- On Aug. 8, protesters in Jersey City complained that the hikes will force them to adopt extreme commuting patterns, like squeezing six passengers into a car, to maintain their standard of living, reported the Star-Ledger.
- On Staten Island, many commuters who take daily trips across the Goethels Bridge, Bayonne Bridge and Outerbridge Crossing feel that it’s unfair for them to bear the burden of a 50 percent toll increase, since the borough benefits from a relatively small number of Port Authority projects. “Ridiculous” has been the operative word among residents, according to the Staten Island Advance.
—Gail Toth, executive director of the New Jersey Motor Truck Association
Since the hike would allow the Port Authority to pursue many new projects, labor groups who stand to profit from job growth have been on a public relations spree advocating for the hikes since the proposal was announced, reported the Star-Ledger. The hikes will produce an estimated 167,000 jobs over the next decade, improve shipping and transportation operations and award contracts to the tune of billions of dollars.
But the surge in PR documents being sent out has raised a considerable red flag for some groups. Opponents told the Star-Ledger:
- “What an orchestrated move!” said Gail Toth, executive director of the New Jersey Motor Truck Association. “Doesn’t it just seem kind of odd that there’s seven days notice, there are going to be these hearings all on the same day, and they’re going to gather all that input, and two days later they’re going to vote on it?”
- Others are angered that the Port Authority, a public agency, is using its press power to support the positions of for-profit labor groups. “If I called them [Port Authority] and said I was opposed to the toll hike, would they issue a press release for me?” said Steve Carellas, a New Jersey coordinator for the National Motorists Association. “I’ve complained about their processes before in the past, but this is the worst. It just doesn’t make you feel good about them.”
- Finally, many believe that the locations that the Post Authority chose to conduct the public hearings are intentionally inconvenient for most residents to get to at the times allotted.
Beyond the immediate outrage over what amounts to a heightened cost of living for millions of commuters and allegedly unfair, perhaps unwise fiscal decision-making, the Wall Street Journal and City Hall News have introduced two alternative, not necessarily exclusive theories about the underlying causes of the toll hike.
- City Hall News suggested that the Port Authority hike may be designed, in part, to lay the groundwork for congestion pricing in New York City. For years, the financially strapped MTA has discussed introducing fares on bridges that span the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn and Queens — a move which would not go over well with New York City voters. The theory is that instead of imposing large tolls on all the bridges within New York City, the Port Authority hikes would allow the MTA to quietly impose small inter-city tolls on only a few bridges, in order to preemptively lessen the outrage by city residents.
- The Wall Street Journal reported that Moody’s Investor Services assigned a negative outlook to the Port Authority’s credit in January, claiming that a credit downgrade would likely occur if the agency continued to spend beyond its means. A credit downgrade could add millions of dollars to the agency’s borrowing costs, and the hike may largely be an attempt by Port Authority to avoid those expenses. The Port Authority frequently borrows large sums to fund its infrastructure projects, like the new World Trade Center site.
“The World Trade Center clearly has been like this albatross,” E.J. McMahon, a senior fellow at the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute, told the Wall Street Journal. “That’s driven as much by the politics imposed on the site as it is by the Port Authority itself.”
As voters show up at sites across New York and New Jersey to voice their opinions tomorrow, it’s uncertain whether their voices will be heard. Christie and Cuomo may veto the hikes or force them to be cut significantly, as political insiders have implied.
What is known is that the transit system both into and within New York City is rapidly aging, and that Port Authority is no longer the economic engine that it was before the recession.
The Port Authority’s board will vote on the toll hikes on Aug. 19.