The Port Authority Needs Sunshine and Oversight, Says Federal Watchdog

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That's according to the independent Government Accountability Office, which just completed its investigation into tolling practices of several bi-state agencies. 

The late New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg had requested the investigation.

Lautenberg -- like other New York and New Jersey legislators -- took the Port to task for a 2011 toll hike they said was too expensive and too hastily rolled out.

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The GAO report both criticizes the Port Authority for not being transparent enough while admitting the agency has murky reporting requirements.

"In the absence of federal or state requirements, the bi-state authority officials reported that they have established their own general policies for public involvement, including making records publicly available and holding open board meetings," writes the GAO.

In other words, the Port Authority gets to determine how much it wants to involve the public.

That conclusion didn't surprise NJ Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a longtime critic of the Port.

"They need to open their books, they need to open their meetings, and they need to open their decision making process," he said. "They’re the 51st state. They operate like a state. They have a budget bigger than 26 U.S. states."

Earlier this year, Wisniewski, who chairs the Assembly's Transportation Committee, was granted subpoena power over the Port Authority in order to investigate its finances.

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The report looks at how the Port Authority incorporated public input in its 2011 toll hike -- and finds the process lacking. "PANYNJ board resolutions and other PANYNJ rules and regulations are generally not available to the public through its web site," said the GAO. "Consequently, at the time of the September 2011 toll increase, the public lacked the information needed to understand whether the PANYNJ was following its public involvement policies and making its toll-setting decisions in a predictable framework."

Moreover: while the Port Authority held ten public hearings on the 2011 toll hike, they were all on the same day -- which was just three days before the Port's board voted to authorize the new tolls. (See below timeline.)

(GAO graphic)

Even though the Port Authority has made some changes to how it will involve the public in future toll hikes, the GAO writes: "we do not believe that the PANYNJ’s policy can be considered a defined and structured process for involving the public in key decisions because the policy still does not specify the number of toll hearings, the amount of time to be made available for the public to comment, and how the authority will utilize public comments."

This is not the first time the Port has been on the receiving end of official scrutiny. As a condition of approving the 2011 toll hikes, the governors of both New York and New Jersey required the Authority to submit to an independent audit. That audit described the Port as "a challenged and dysfunctional organization" and made multiple recommendations. And earlier this year, a fiscal watchdog group said the Port must overhaul its budgeting process -- in part because it doesn't provide enough opportunity for public review.

"One of the best ways to make sure the Port Authority is operating for the benefit of the public is to give the public unfettered access," said Assemblyman Wisniewski.

The Port Authority did not respond to a request for comment.

Read the GAO's report below.