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Vainieri Huttle, Gordon & Weinberg Step Up Battle for Port Authority Reforms

Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Senator Bob Gordon and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (all D-Bergen) are preparing a Port Authority reform bill that will add mission and management reforms to the tough ethics and disclosure standards proposed in their previous legislation that was vetoed by Governor Christie.

“The new bill will also modify the senior management structure to provide for a unified chain of command, and a mechanism to assure that each state has equal influence in policy making and budget decisions,” Vainieri Huttle said. “The sponsors from both states have just begun to evaluate the various organizational options and are conferring with outside experts.”

“The Port Authority needs major systemic reforms that will put an end to the problems that led to the Bridgegate scandal and the secret machinations behind the massive 2011 toll hikes,” said Gordon. “Unfortunately, Republicans refused to join with us in voting to override the Governor’s veto six weeks ago. But we have been holding discussions with our fellow reformers in the New York Legislature on new legislation that we hope will be enacted.”

“We have already seen the damage that is caused by a lack of transparency and accountability at the Port Authority,” Weinberg said. “But the need for reform is broader than simply ethics. We need to make sure that the Port Authority fulfills its core mission of meeting the transportation needs of the 350,000 New Jerseyans who cross the Hudson each day to jobs in New York and the 120,000 New Yorkers who make a reverse commute to New Jersey.”

Vainieri Huttle, Weinberg and Gordon noted that the Port Authority’s most recent 10-year capital plan did not include funding for either construction of a new rail tunnel or reconstruction of the dilapidated Port Authority Bus Terminal, which are the top priorities of New Jersey commuters and transportation advocates.

Gordon said there is broad agreement between New Jersey and New York lawmakers that key provisions of the original bill sponsored by Gordon, Weinberg and Vainieri Huttle in New Jersey and by Assemblyman James Brennan (D-Brooklyn) in New York should form the starting point for the new bill, although sponsors on both sides of the Hudson are open to changes that will improve the bill’s chance of ultimate passage.

In the views of the New Jersey sponsors, the most important provisions to preserve are those that would (1) require a four-year capital plan; (2) provide annual reports on the progress of the capital plan and quarterly reports on the cost and progress of major initiatives; (3) set standards for prior disclosure and competitive bidding on real estate sales; (4) require an independent needs assessment and a full schedule of public hearings prior to any toll increases; ((5) give legislative committees in either state the power to call the Port Authority CEO and other senior officials or board members to testify; (6) require strict disclosure of board members’ potential conflicts of interest involving extended family members, not just those living in their household; and (7) provide protections for “whistleblowers” as a check on future abuses.

The three legislators endorsed the Port Authority mission statement suggested by the bistate commission chaired by current Port Authority Chairman John Degnan. That mission statement, which will be incorporated in their new bill, calls for the Port Authority to “meet the critical transportation infrastructure needs of the bi-state region’s people, businesses, and visitors by providing the highest quality and most efficient transportation and port commerce facilities and services to move people and goods within the region, provide access to the nation and the world, and promote the region’s economic development.”

At the suggestion of the bistate commission, the Port Authority board is already moving to divest its non-transportation-related real estate in order to fund core transportation improvements.

Vainieri Huttle, Gordon and Weinberg said their Port Authority bill would also adopt the bistate commission’s recommendation barring the provision of “discretionary regional development funds” to the two states’ governors for use on special projects of their choosing.