Lawsuit Challenging Port Authority Toll Increase in Court Thursday

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Lincoln Tunnel traffic (Getty Images)

Thursday will be the first public court hearing in a lawsuit challenging the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey's recent toll hikes. And at the heart of the dispute is whether the Authority is using that revenue to pay for the $11 billion World Trade Center redevelopment, not transportation.

Robert Sinclair, a spokesman for the New York and North Jersey chapters of the Automobile Association of America, the group suing the agency, says the WTC -- "far and above the most expensive thing they are talking about doing"--is not a transportation expense. “Why should motorists pay for a half-empty office building that they’re having a difficult time attracting tenants to?” he said. The AAA wants a federal judge to block the Authority's toll increases.

In legal filings, The Port Authority says the money from the toll increase is being used to fund its Interstate Transportation Network (ITN), which consists of its tolled bridges and tunnels, as well as the PATH train and the Port Authority Bus Terminal. But back in August, a press release cited the cost of the WTC site as an example of the financial stresses it faced. And during the public hearings on the fare hike, that issue kept coming up -- as did the Authority's $33 billion, 10-year capital plan.  That was an emotional argument for politically unpopular hikes, coming as it did less than a month before the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

Neither New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, nor New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who control the Port Authority, have explained the shifting justifications for the hike.

The AAA says the ITN is in the black -- making the toll hike unnecessary. The Port Authority disputes this, saying in an affidavit (pdf) that "even with the tolls and fares increase, the ITN will still operate at a deficit and will likely require support from other facilities."

The Port Authority says it needs the toll revenues to fund its $25 billion 10-year capital plan and the lawsuit should be dismissed.

Last week a New Jersey assemblyman asked Governor Christie to investigate how the Port Authority is handling the toll and PATH fare hikes.

The Port Authority approved the toll increase in August-- one month before the tenth anniversary of 9/11-- raising the cash cost of crossing the Hudson River bridges and tunnels from $8 to $12. At the time, the agency's then-executive director, Chris Ward, said the hikes were "absolutely necessary to ensure the financial strength of the Port Authority and to maintain and grow the critical transportation infrastructure that serves the bi-state region."

In September, just before the increase went into effect, the AAA asked the U.S. Department of Transportation to block it. The DOT declined, and so the AAA brought suit.

AAA says it's relying on legal precedent from the last time it sued the Port Authority, which was over the agency's 1989 toll hikes. "We didn’t want motorists paying to subsidize the PATH," said Sinclair.  A court ruled against the AAA, saying the Port Authority could use toll hikes to fund transportation projects.

You can see the AAA's complaint against the Port Authority here (pdf).

For more TN coverage on the fare hike, click here.