Toll Hike Vote: How it Came to Be

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Lincoln Tunnel HelixAfter all the sturm and drang, it took only seven seconds.

The Port Authority chairman, David Samson, called for a vote.  "I would like to move these items forward for approval," he intoned. " May I have a second?  All in favor?  So moved. "

And with that, all nine authority board members present voted "aye." PATH train fares and bridge and tunnel tolls were hiked, effectively almost immediately.

Tolls for EZ pass users will go up to $9.50 during peak hours, from $8, eventually rising to $13.  PATH fares will go up a quarter a year, to $2.75.   For the Hudson River crossings, there will be a $2 cash surcharge.

And so , on an August Friday, it was done.

On the one hand, this was a case study in how to rush something through, with as little input as possible:  Announce something on a Friday afternoon in August, hold an accelerated schedule of hearings (to which your board members don't show up, anyway), then vote, lickety-split, while families are loading up their minivans with ice-coolers, fishing rods, and making sure the phone chargers aren't forgotten.

Come September, when the hikes go into effect, no one will even notice.

On the other hand, it's a case study in how to get two tax-averse governors to raise revenue to pay for big infrastructure projects, just after one of them has killed the biggest transit project in the nation because he didn't want NJ taxpayers on the hook for cost overruns.

And a way to get that Governor, Chris Christie,  to state the same pro-infrastructure arguments that were used to try, unsuccessfully,  to turn him around on the ARC tunnel.

Let's recap.

The plan was announced, without notice, late in the afternoon two Fridays ago.   Friday afternoon is typically when you announce news you want buried.

The Governors issue a carefully-worded, unusual joint statement not opposing the hikes.

"The Port Authority has informed us of its proposal to dramatically increase tolls on its tunnels and bridges and fares on the PATH. While we understand the Port Authority leadership's concerns about a potential downgrade to its bond rating if toll increases are not instituted, our primary concern with this proposal is its impact on our respective states' residents and commercial users of the crossings."

Now, it's important to understand that the Governors of New York and New Jersey control the port authority board.  Ultimately commissioners do what governors say.   To be sure, there's a bit more of a tango here than with the MTA, for example, because the New York Governor does have say over the MTA budget.  Through tolls, fees, and real estate revenue, the Port Authority raises all its own money.   Still, the Port Authority doesn't exactly act independently, like a teenager at college.

The week after the toll proposal was announced Governor Christie railed against the Port Authority leadership for mismanagement.  Governor Cuomo called the toll proposal "a non-starter."  But still, neither ruled out hikes altogether.

As late as the Thursday before the vote, Christie was calling for Port Authority reform, railing about a NY Comptroller's report this week that showed the port authority paying out big bucks in overtime.

But then, at 6:30 pm, the letter crossed reporters' email transoms.  Tolls would be going up.  Not to the frighteningly high rate of $15 for some users, but they'd rise, starting with a $1.50 rise almost immediately.

"While we did not want to see any toll increase, given the crisis facing the Port Authority and its finances and the potential safety and economic risks to commuters and businesses, an increase cannot be avoided," the Governors wrote in their letter.

The two Governors said not raising tolls and fares would "jeopardize 167,000 jobs and $9.7 billion in wages" -- the same argument given by the Port Authority's board before its vote Friday.

"It is the impact of these factors: a slowed economy, the commitment to rebuild the World Trade Center site and other infrastructure investments and our responsibility to provide security for our travelers, our customers and our commuters," Chairman Sampson said before the vote.

He added: "Port Authority projects drive jobs and economic growth and that a failure to invest in infrastructure today will only cost us more in the long term."

Which is exactly the same argument Governor Christie's critics made before he pulled the plug on the ARC tunnel.

But this time around, it was different.  Unlike the ARC tunnel, the Port's big projects, like rebuilding the World Trade Center, are not so easily stopped.  And with federal funding for infrastructure drying up, it may be that the governors have decided, of all the unpalatable options for paying for infrastructure, this one was the least bad.