Higher Bridge, Tunnel and PATH Rates Approved

A steep toll increase on the bridges and tunnels that cross the Hudson River was approved on Friday by the board of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the culmination of a two-week dance between the agency, politicians, and the public.

The approved increase, which takes effect next month, will immediately raise peak EZPass tolls to $9.50 from $8. By 2015, that toll will be $12.50. The cash toll will go up 50 percent in September to $12 a ride; by 2015, the cash toll will be $15.

The increases, although sure to be criticized by drivers, are significantly less steep than an initial proposal floated by the Port Authority earlier this month, and few municipal observers were surprised by the change.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey expressed surprise at the initial plan — a stance that raised some eyebrows as the governors jointly control the agency, whose every public action, particularly one as significant as a toll increase, is rarely announced without some form of prior approval from the two executives.

The governors pledged to review the proposal with the agency, and a round of public hearings was held. (Few, if any, authority board members attended those sessions.)

Late Thursday, as predicted, the governors issued a joint statement that took credit for the lower increases. “We are pleased that our work together” led to the lower tolls, the governors wrote.

The proposal will also raise the single-fare ride on the PATH train by 25 cents each of the next four years.

Mr. Cuomo and Mr. Christie have called for a significant audit of the Port Authority and blamed the toll increases on “fiscal mismanagement.” The governors promised to reduce the agency’s budget for maintenance and expansion.

The authority, like many sprawling bureaucracies, has its share of waste and inefficiencies, such as spiraling overtime. But the agency has trimmed its operating budget in the past few years and reduced staffing to the lowest level in decades. Its bonds recently received an upgrade from a rating agency.

The need for higher tolls is based more on the declining economy, which reduced the number of commuters (and thus, toll revenue) on the agency’s crossings. And the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site has siphoned billions away from the agency’s budget for improving and expanding its bridges, tunnels, airports, shipping ports and the PATH system.

Mr. Christie, who has pledged to not raise taxes on his constituents, called for the agency to use part of its budget for New Jersey road and highway repairs, which are traditionally paid for by the state. Some of Mr. Christie’s political opponents say the higher tolls are a de facto tax increase on commuters.

At Friday’s board hearing, representatives of several civic groups expressed support for the higher tolls, saying the revenue was necessary to help pay for the region’s transportation infrastructure to stay in good repair.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, on his Friday morning radio show, also endorsed the plan, warning that without additional revenue, the region’s economy would be at risk.

“The bridges would eventually fall down, we wouldn’t fix anything, we wouldn’t make the commute better,” the mayor said. “If you want services, you’ve got to pay for them.”
 
The proposals were approved 9-0 by the agency’s board of commissioners, all of whom are appointed by the two states’ governors.

A handful of commuters and civic activists spoke at Friday’s meeting against the higher tolls, saying that the working public was being asked to subsidize the agency’s foul-ups.

None of the agency’s nine commissioners would speak to reporters at the hearing’s conclusion. “I speak to the public, but not under these circumstances,” said one commissioner, David S. Steiner, as he walked past reporters into a private side room.

Mr. Steiner, an appointee of former Gov. James E. McGreevey of New Jersey, did not appear to be listening to the public, either. He could be seen resting, with his eyes shut, during significant portions of Friday’s board meeting.

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