(TRENTON) – Assembly Democrats John Wisniewski, Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Linda Stender and Ruben Ramos, Jr. have introduced legislation that would grant the Assembly Transportation Committee rare subpoena power in order to obtain highly sought after answers into the record toll hikes approved in August by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ), which has refused to appear before the panel thus far.
The bipartisan legislation (AR-61), which is also sponsored by Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll, was prompted by a series of scathing reports and questionable decisions by the Port Authority over the last six months.
“The Port Authority is beginning to look more and more like an out-of-control agency that has forgotten it exists to serve the public,” said Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), Deputy Assembly Speaker and Chair of the Assembly Transportation Committee. “They hid information about the toll increase, continue to waste money on overtime, stack their payroll with political cronies, failed to respond to public records requests, and now they’re attempting to obfuscate it all by declining our hearing invitation. It’s time to get straight answers once and for all.”
The legislation would allow the panel to convene as a special committee with the power to issue subpoenas to compel the attendance of individuals and testimony and the production of books, papers, correspondence, and other relevant documents.
“Given the deficiencies detailed in the recent audit, it calls into question the need for the exorbitant toll hikes heaped on commuters last fall,” said Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), who is sponsoring legislation (A-1011) along with Ramos and Wisniewski to overhaul the way the Authority conducts business. “Toll payers shouldn’t be forced to suffer for the Port Authority’s lack of oversight, insufficient cost controls and poor capital planning. More importantly, they shouldn’t be lied to and kept in the dark, especially when it impacts their daily finances. If they’re not willing to take control of their finances, somebody must.”
In August, a New York Comptroller audit revealed that the Port Authority had wasted nearly half of a billion dollars on overtime costs over the last five years. Despite this and other reports of mismanagement and abuse, the agency went ahead and approved near record toll hikes with little public input, citing, among other things, increased costs for the Word Trade Center reconstruction project. After the agency was sued by AAA of New York and Northern New Jersey, the authority then rescinded the claims that a portion of the tolls would be used for the World Trade Center site, calling into question the need for the exorbitant hike.
Consequently, Wisniewski called a Feb. 2 hearing of the Assembly Transportation, Public Works and Independent Authorities Committee to investigate the authority’s finances and invited the Executive Director of the Port Authority who declined to attend or send a representative in his place.
Several days later, a scathing audit described the agency as “a challenged and dysfunctional organization” that suffered from a lack of oversight, insufficient cost controls and poor capital planning.
“We’ve now seen not one, but two scathing audits detail the complete lack of accountability and transparency at the Port Authority,” said Stender (D-Middlesex/Somerset/Union). “At this point, it appears as though the agency is accountable to no one, certainly not the toll payers who are bearing the burden of the authority’s actions and clearly not lawmakers either. It’s time to put an end to that.”
“The back-pedaling, double-talk and lack of transparency has to change,” said Ramos (D-Hudson). “This is a monstrous agency that impacts the lives of countless tri-state area commuters every day and yet they operate in the shadows answering to no one. We must shine some light on the way they operate.”
Specifically, the legislation will allow the Assembly Transportation, Public Works and Independent Authorities Committee to be constituted as a special committee of the General Assembly (under chapter 13 of Title 52 of state statutes) with subpoena power to investigate all aspects of the finances of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, including, but not limited to, the recently proposed 10-year capital plan, the allocation of the revenue generated from the recently imposed toll increase plan and where that revenue is being spent, and the salary, overtime, and other compensation paid to officers and employees of the authority.