Measure to Address Systemic Failures of Port Authority; Create a Top-to-Bottom Overhaul of the Beleaguered Bi-State Agency
(TRENTON) — Assembly Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee Chairman John S. Wisniewski on Thursday unveiled top-to-bottom reform legislation meant to address the numerous and systemic failures of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ), which culminated in the weeklong, unexplained closure of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge a little over a year ago.
“The Port Authority is, unfortunately, a classic modern example of an out-of-control government agency operating completely unchecked,” said Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), a co-chair of the special legislative investigative body that is examining the chain of events that led up to the September 2013 lane closures.
“And, equally unfortunately, it’s not hard to see why,” Wisniewski continued. “With an annual budget larger than 26 states; with many New Jersey commuters paying more in tolls than they do in state income taxes; with rafts of political appointments to positions of immense power; and with no clear mission statement or long-term plan, it was only a matter of time before the actions of the Port Authority matched its unaccountable nature.
“Our ongoing investigations into the now infamous ‘time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee’ email chain have provided us with a unique opportunity: the political will and public support necessary to reform this runaway agency.
“This is an agency that is in desperate need of top-to-bottom reform in almost every aspect of its structure and operation. We have been given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to remake this agency from the ground up and it is essential to our transportation and economic futures that we get it right.
“To that end,” concluded Wisniewski, “I have introduced legislation that offers systemic reform of the Port Authority that will hopefully end the dysfunction and abuse that has plagued this agency and the public it serves.”
Wisniewski’s comprehensive Port Authority reform legislation would address the core malfeasance in the agency through bold and far-reaching reform measures. Under the bill:
- The Executive Branch monopoly on appointing commissioners would be ended. The governors of New York and New Jersey would each be allowed to appoint three commissioners, down from six. The New Jersey and New York legislatures would each be allowed to appoint two commissioners. And a newly created Citizens Advisory Committee (discussed later) would be allowed to appoint one commissioner from New York and one from New Jersey;
- Open public meetings of the Port Authority would be the rule, rather than the exception. The PANYNJ would be prohibited from holding a meeting unless adequate notice is provided to the public. With limited circumstances, all meetings of the PANYNJ would be open to the public. And all meetings would be required to have reasonably comprehensible and comprehensive minutes detailing the time and place, the members present, subjects discussed and actions taken.
- Public records requests would be streamlined. All PANYNJ public records would be subject to both New York’s Freedom of Information law and New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act. A record that is considered public under one state’s public records laws would make it a public record in both. Denial of a public records request could be challenged in court or with the Government Records Council established under New Jersey Law.
- The Port Authority’s Board of Commissioners would have more political autonomy. The commissioners would be allowed to self-select their chairperson and vice-chairperson. The chair and vice-chair would not be allowed to be from the same state and the positions would be required to be rotated between New York and New Jersey appointees. Commissioners would not be bound by chair or vice-chair recommendations made by either state’s governor.
- The Port Authority’s executive director would be selected through an exhaustive national search. The term of executive director would be extended to five years, to overlap gubernatorial terms in both states, and executive directors would be able to be reappointed. With board approval, the executive director would be able to select a deputy and other high-level officers.
- Commissioners would no longer have to fear gubernatorial vetoes. The governors of both states would lose their veto power over the action of commissioners.
- The Port Authority would be given a specific mission statement. The mission of the PANYNJ would be to facilitate the movement of cargo, vehicles and people, and to construct terminal, transportation and other facilities of commerce in the port district.
- A review of all current projects would be conducted. If a current project does not align with the newly detailed mission of the PANYNJ, the agency would be directed to develop a plan to divest itself of the project as quickly and efficiently as possible.
- A cost-benefit analysis of all proposed projects would be conducted. This analysis would include: the reason for the project; a list of project alternatives; the anticipated economic benefits, including expected short- and long-term job creation; and direct and indirect costs to all stakeholders.
- The Port Authority would have additional reporting requirements to the governors, legislatures and public in both states. At the end of each fiscal year the agency would be required to issue a report detailing: audited financial statements, operating and financial risks, current bond ratings, and long-term liabilities; at minimum a five-year financial plan which includes capital and operating budgets; and an analysis of the likelihood of future toll increases.
- Port Authority commissioners would be required to take a fiduciary oath. In addition to a more traditional oath of office, this oath would specify the commissioner’s obligation to be financially responsible while continuing to meet the port authority’s mission and protecting the public’s interests.
- The existence and impact of any commissioner’s potential conflicts of interest would be disclosed up front. Any conflict or appearance of conflict of a personal, financial, ethical or professional nature that could influence a commissioner’s ability to remain impartial would be required to be disclosed. Commissioners would be required to annually recertify their conflict status. Commissioners with a conflict would be prohibited from voting on or participating in any discussion on the conflicted item.
- The chance of commissioners with a laundry list of conflicts would be reduced. New York and New Jersey would be prohibited from appointing a commissioner if that person has any interest in, or is employed by, any partnership, firm, corporation or other entity that engages in any business, transaction, or professional activity or incurs any obligation of any nature with the PANYNJ, the State of New York, the State of New Jersey, the Metropolitan Transit Authority or the New Jersey Transit Authority.
- Commissioners would be required to file annual financial disclosures. Failure to comply would result with the commissioner’s removal from office.
- Toll increases would not be able to be rammed through with little to no notice. The PANYNJ would be required to hold at least 10 public hearings at least 60 days before adopting any toll, fee or fare increase. At least one hearing would be required to be held in each New York and New Jersey county directly affected by the proposed increase. Each hearing would be required to be attended by the executive director and at least two of the commissioners appointed from each state. No more than one public hearing would be allowed to be held in a single day and at least half of the hearings would be required to be held after 6:30 p.m. on a weekday. Toll and fee increases would not take effect until at least 90 days after adoption.
- The Port Authority would no longer be able to ignore or refuse legislative requests. At the request of either house of the Legislature in either state, members of the PANYNJ would be required to appear and present testimony on any topic or subject requested by the legislature or legislative committee. This would also extend to any document requests sent to the agency on behalf of the Legislature.
- The public would have ample notice of “traffic problems in Fort Lee” and elsewhere. Any planned project or operation that is expected to impede the normal operation of a port authority facility would require advance written notice to the mayor and emergency management coordinator in every municipality within five miles of the facility, to the newspapers of general circulation in each county and municipality in which the facility is located, and through variable message signs to inform motorists directly of any upcoming operations.
- An inventory of current Port Authority assets and their general state of repair would be conducted. The inventory would assess the age, condition, investment needs, maintenance costs, availability, capability and reliability of each facility and railroad managed by the PANYNJ and categorize each facility as high, medium or low priority for repair based on that analysis. Two years after this analysis, the PANYNJ would be prohibited from approving any new projects if existing high priority projects have not been addressed in the port authority’s capital plan.
- The boundaries of the port district would be reexamined. The proposed new boundaries would potentially include all areas of New York and New Jersey where the Port Authority currently owns or operates facilities and any other areas in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area that supports the interstate movement of cargo, vehicles or people not currently included within the boundaries of the port district.
A Citizens Advisory Committee would be created. The committee would consist of 18 members, selected by the Port Authority Board of Commissioners. Committee members would serve a two year term. The representative makeup of the committee would be as follows:
- One from NJ Transit
- One from the MTA
- One from the NJ DEP
- One from the NY Department of Environmental Conservation
- One from the pilotage services industry (e.g. tugboat pilots, harbor masters)
- One from the cruise operations and passenger ship industry
- Two from the port shipping industry (one from each state)
- Two from the railroad industry (one from each state)
- Two from the pool of daily rail passengers (one from each state)
- Two from the longshoremen and waterfront labor (one from each state)
- Two from the warehouses and distribution centers (one from each state); and
- Two from the transportation workers, operators, fabricators and laborers (one from each state).
The goal of the Citizens Advisory Committee is to act as an independent representative and advocate on behalf of all users and potential users of Port Authority facilities and of the industries that operate within the port district. The committee is authorized to:
- Receive and review comprehensive plans, capital and operating budgets, current and proposed rate structures and other matters of concern to persons being served by the Port Authority;
- Seek to advise the Port Authority Board of Commissioners prior to actions being taken on the preceding;
- Formulate proposals, suggestions and plans to be submitted to the board of commissioners; and
- Solicit and receive public input regarding the PANYNJ.
Members of the Citizens Advisory Committee are permitted to attend, and required to be granted admission to, all meetings of the Port Authority Board of Commissioners. The Citizens Advisory Committee will select one person from each state to serve on the board.
- An independent inspector general would be appointed to oversee the operations of the PANYNJ. The Office of the Inspector General would be constituted in, but not of, the PANYNJ. The inspector general would be appointed upon joint recommendation of the governors of New York and New Jersey. The inspector general would serve one term of six years and until a successor has been appointed and qualified. The inspector general would conduct routine, periodic and random audits of the PANYNJ and conduct assessments, based on these audits, of the performance and management of programs of the authority and the extent to which it is achieving its goals and objectives. The inspector general would report findings of audits and any recommendations for corrective or remedial actions to the governors and legislatures of both states. These reports also would be available to the public.
- Whistleblower protections would be extended to PANYNJ employees. The protections would be similar to those found in the “Conscientious Employee Protection Act.”
- A government liaison would be established to act as a conduit between the port authority and the governors and legislatures in both states. The board of commissioners would appoint an employee to the position of government liaison.
- The PANYNJ would have operations of air terminals outside the port district revoked.
A copy of the bill, as introduced, is viewable here.