Saturday, August 6, 2011

NY-NJ Toll- Fares to Steeply Increase in region with far too few major infrastructure projects

Public hearing scheduled for August 16-

public should demand additional crossings, new RR tunnels, Lincoln & Holland Tunnel Augmentation, Cross County Bridge to New Jersey, and expedited Cross Sound Link and Cross Brooklyn-Harbor Tunnels*

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey proposed its steepest toll increase in modern memory on Friday, unveiling a plan that would raise the cost of crossing the tunnels and bridges that span the Hudson River by 50 percent for most drivers and raise the price of a monthly PATH train pass by 65 percent.

E-ZPass users would see a jump from $8 to $12 at peak hours on the three major Hudson River crossings — the George Washington Bridge and the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels — as well as three other bridges between New Jersey and Staten Island. Drivers who pay with cash would be charged $7 more, or $15 a trip, making the toll one of the highest in the country.

The provenance of the larger-than-expected proposed increases was mysterious. The two men who control the agency, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, issued a statement saying they shared “obvious and significant concerns” about the proposal.

But privately, the Cuomo administration signed off on the plan within the past week, according to two sources familiar with internal discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering administration officials. The agency had been planning for months to impose a $2 toll increase. The $4 proposal caught agency officials off guard.

Asked whether Governor Cuomo had pushed for the $4 increase, a spokesman, Josh Vlasto, responded, “That’s not true.” But he would not elaborate on the discussions or the governor’s view of the proposal.

“There is nothing more to say,” Mr. Vlasto said.

Of course, governors often like to step in and halt unpopular increases and fees, and proposals to raise Port Authority tolls tend to start a familiar political dance: the agency puts forward a bracing plan, the public reacts angrily, and governors relish the role of advocate for the overburdened commuter. Usually, a more reasonable compromise is reached.

A public hearing on the proposal is expected to be held on Aug. 16, and the Port Authority’s board of commissioners will consider the new tolls and fares at a meeting this month.

If the board votes for the plan, both governors would have 10 days during which they could veto the increases.

The board and the Port Authority’s top administrative staff members are entirely selected by the two governors, and few decisions at the agency, which controls many of the region’s bridges, tunnels, shipping ports and airports, are made without some form of consultation with Albany and Trenton.

The Port Authority, which receives all of its revenue through tolls and fees, has seen its budget wither from the poor economy, which has reduced the number of drivers on its crossings, and the siphoning off of funds for nonagency projects.

After Governor Christie decided last year to end an ambitious plan for another train tunnel under the Hudson because of its cost, he successfully pushed the agency to redistribute $1.8 billion of the money it had earmarked for the project instead to be used for road and highway repairs in New Jersey.

Some regional transportation advocates endorsed the toll increases on Friday, saying the additional revenue was sorely needed for major infrastructure projects. But critics said drivers and PATH riders would not be asked to make such large sacrifices if the agency’s budget had not been raided.

“This increase is not surprising given the financial pressure” put on the agency, said Kate Slevin, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. And some New Jersey politicians said the big increases were a way for Mr. Christie, who has sworn off tax increases, to squeeze revenue from the commuting public.

“If you say you’re not going to raise taxes on anybody to fund transportation, it’s disingenuous to take money from the Port Authority and have them raise tolls, and act as if you’re not responsible,” said Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski, Democratic chairman of the State Assembly’s transportation committee. The toll increase, he said, “is Chris Christie’s toll increase.”

Under the proposal, a single fare on the PATH train, the diminutive commuter subway system that connects parts of Manhattan to New Jersey, would be raised $1, to $2.75 a ride.

The price of a 30-day unlimited pass for the PATH system would be raised by 65 percent, to $89 from $54 a month.

The proposal calls for the crossing tolls to be raised again in 2014, with an increase of $2 for drivers. The PATH fare would not be raised again in 2014, under the current proposal.

Revenue from this year’s increases would generate an additional $720 million for the agency. The second phase of increases, in 2014, would raise $290 million.

Michael Barbaro contributed reporting


* Best done without new general taxes and without the continuing mega boondoggle of the cigarette-pharma mercantilism drug war.

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