"The planned toll hikes should be suspended until an external audit determines that the audit recommendations have been addressed," wrote U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg in a letter sent to Authority chairman David Samson and signed by three fellow Democrats, Reps. Albio Sires, Bill Pascrell and Steve Rothman. "We are not alone in this request; state and local officials in New Jersey have recommended that the Port Authority delay the hikes while reforms are under way."
The Star-Ledger says Port Authority officials declined to comment on the letter.
Last August, the The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey approved raising bridge and tunnel tolls that will mean an extra $50 per five-axle truck for E-Z Pass users and even more for cash customers.
Trucking interests have decried the steep toll hikes. In the days following last year's decision, American Trucking Associations President and CEO Bill Graves called on Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Andrew Cuomo of New York to reconsider what he called an "ill-conceived and unprecedented" toll hike.
In testimony earlier this month before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, NFI Chief Financial Officer Steve Grabell Grabell said the planned increases in tolls on the bridges between New York and New Jersey operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey would increase tolls 163% by 2015, to a total of $105 per truck, "nearly three times greater than the country's next highest bridge toll."
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who appoint commissioners to the Port Authority board, requested an outside audit as part of the agreement to raise tolls, reports the Associated Press. The first stage of the audit, released in January, referred to the Port Authority as "a challenged and dysfunctional organization" with a lack of leadership and cost controls, the letter says.
However, the letter said, future toll hikes don't require the agency to adress any "deficiencies" found during the audit.
Last fall, tolls rose by 50% for cash customers, one of five scheduled annual hikes, AP says. Initially it was said the toll hikes would help pay for the redevelopment of the former World Trade Center site, but in later court filings the agency said the additional money would go toward bridges, bus terminals and other transportation needs.
This adds more heat to the ongoing tension between the bi-state authority and New Jersey's Democratic congressmen.
Those tensions became public last week during a Senate subcommittee hearing on toll hikes when Port Authority deputy executive director William Baroni accused Lautenberg of using his former Port Authority commissioner title to avoid paying tolls 284 times, reports newjerseynewsroom.com.
"He fed at the trough for 24 years," Gov.Christie (who, along with Gov. Cuomo, appoints commissioners to the Port Authority board) said of Lautenberg. "A multi-millionaire who brags about how rich he is, couldn't go into his pocket to pay for tolls? Couldn't go into his pocket to pay for parking at Port Authority facilities? And that is the guy who is going to a paragon of virtue - who is going to judge the Port Authority?"
Lautenberg responded in a statement, saying: "There he goes again - the name-calling governor. Just like the Rutgers-Rowan controversy, the governor is so afraid of answering legitimate questions that he resorts to distractions and juvenile name-calling. These desperate tactics by the governor and the Port Authority clearly show that they are working to cover up something about the toll increases."