U.S. Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ) and U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman (D-NJ) joined New Jersey Democratic lawmakers Wednesday at just south of the George Washington Bridge to call on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to suspend its scheduled toll hikes until an audit can be completed and reforms implemented.
The event, which was held under a park pavilion instead of against the backdrop of the GWB because of rain, took place just days after Lautenberg, Rothman, U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-NJ) and U.S. Rep. Albio Sires (D-NJ) sent a letter to Port Authority Chairman David Samson requesting a delay in the next round of toll hikes scheduled to go into effect in December.
In Fort Lee Wednesday, Lautenberg called the increasing tolls “painful for the people of our state.”
“Now is not the time for another punishing round of toll hikes for the people of New Jersey,” Lautenberg said. “The current tolls here at the George Washington Bridge and other crossings are already hurting family budgets, and additional toll hikes would be a further blow to commuters and their families.”
He added, “New Jersey families shouldn’t be used as a first stop in the Port Authority’s attempt to balance their books.”
After raising cash tolls to $12 and E-ZPass tolls to $9.50 during peak hours in September 2011, the Port Authority has scheduled annual increases starting in December, when tolls are set to increase to $13 for those who pay with cash and $10.25 for E-ZPass customers. Under the Port Authority's plan, tolls would continue to increase each subsequent year and cost drivers as much as $15 by 2015.
Lautenberg challenged the Port Authority and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to stop what he called “the campaign against New Jersey commuters” and suspend further toll increases.
“Come home from far away places, Governor, get behind the desk and do what you have to do to make it easier for New Jersey residents to get along,” Lautenberg said.
State Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37), who was joined Wednesday in Fort Lee by fellow state legislators Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37), Sen. Robert Gordon (D-38) and Assemblywoman Connie Wagner (D-38), estimated that over the course of a year, it costs New Jersey commuters $3,000 “just to drive to work because of the monumental toll hikes the Port Authority instituted last fall.”
“We are here today to tell the Port Authority that before New Jersey commuters are forced to pay a penny more, the Port Authority must reform its financial and management practices,” Huttle said.
Referring to an —the first phase of which was released in February, with the second phase expected to be released in June—that called the agency “challenged and dysfunctional,” Rothman criticized the Port Authority for a “lack of consistent leadership, a lack of cost controls and lack of transparency and efficient oversight” and said the proposed additional toll hikes are “wrong and underserved.”
“Local commuters here in New Jersey should not be on the hook for additional tolls when there is plenty of room for the Port Authority to find the money to balance its books without further burdening the already over-burdened New Jersey commuter,” Rothman said. “These toll increases must be suspended until the Port Authority fully addresses the problems identified by the audit and shows that the [agency] is even capable of getting its fiscal house in order.”
Weinberg said the Port Authority should “hold off” on further toll increases “until the word ‘dysfunction’ is taken away as a description of [the agency.]”
“The authority should use better judgment and suspend the new increases and concentrate on making needed reforms,” Weinberg said.