|Mayor Steven Fulop of Jersey City speaks at a press conference, urging that the PATH be kept running on weekend nights. Courtesy Steven Fulop|
As the Bridgegate scandal seems to be moving toward its denouement just about as quickly as the traffic on the George Washington Bridge during those four September days last year – in other words, it’s not moving at all – the government agency behind it is caught up in another set of problems.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, controlled by appointees of the governors of those two states, oversees bridges, tunnels, rail systems, terminals, ports, and airports; its “operating and capital budgets combined total an authorized amount of $8.2 billion,” according to its website.
It historically has been a honeypot for the two states’ governors; because it is not transparent, it provides them with a useful way to reward allies and fund projects close to their own or their supporters’ hearts.
The George Washington Bridge is one of the spans the Port Authority controls; last year’s lane closures were embarrassing for the Port Authority, and led to calls for increased transparency, at the least, from the agency.
As the investigations into the lane closures dragged on, the legislatures in New Jersey and New York voted unanimously in favor of a bill to lift some of the secrecy enshrouding the Port Authority. That was no small feat – four separate bodies, upper and lower houses in two state legislatures, Democrats and Republicans alike, voted the same way.
But on the Saturday night between Christmas and New Year’s Day – not a time of the day, or of the week, or of the year when most people pay much attention to the news – Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, and Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic governor of New York, chose to veto the bill.
They replaced the legislation with a reform plan of their own, which is not subject to approval and can be implemented immediately.
Echoes of Tammany Hall spring irresistibly to mind.
But not only did the governors squash the reforms in the legislative plan, they added some money-saving ideas of their own. Among them was the plan to shut the PATH trains that go from Jersey City and Hoboken to Manhattan on weekend nights.
That, according to Jersey City’s mayor, Steve Fulop, and Hoboken’s mayor, Dawn Zimmer – as well as to Senator Robert Menendez and many other elected officials – is a very bad and very damaging idea.
Both those mayors are Jewish, and both towns, once full of Jews, are seeing new generations of Jews return. Both also are cities of first-generation immigrants, whose stories mirror those of many of our own parents, grandparents, or great grandparents as they work their way up from poverty to stability and then, they hope, comfort.
Both mayors also are very angry.
The proposed legislation “passed unanimously at about 600 to zero,” Mr. Fulop said. “That’s probably never happened before. It’s amazing.”
The governors’ choice to veto it when they did was amazing as well, he added. “And it was so blatant.
“In theory, the legislatures can override it, but there is zero history of a Christie veto override.”
The stealth timing was made even worse by other political facts. “In New York, a new state assembly will take office,” Mr. Fulop said. Mr. Cuomo was just reelected, and Mr. Christie has won his second term, and is barred by state law from a third consecutive one.
“The Port Authority’s budget is bigger than most states’ budgets,” Mr. Fulop said. “There is very little oversight, because nobody stands for election, just appointment by the governors. It has been a political tool for a long time.
“There is zero incentive for them to want to change it, because it acts like a piggy bank for them.”
There are a number of reasons for particular concern about the changes to PATH service, he said. “When you look at Bergen, Hudson, and Essex counties, you see that we are very congested. We should be investing in mass transit. Every study says that we are underserved in access between New York and New Jersey.
“When they eliminated the ARC tunnel, it was a major blow.”
(ARC stands for Access to the Region’s Core. It was a complex commuter rail project, estimated to cost almost $9 billion. Construction on the project, which first took form in the 1990s, began in 2009; Mr. Christie vetoed it the next year. “Lautenberg” -that is Senator Frank Lautenberg, the New Jersey Democrat who died in 2013 – “worked for 10 years to put it together, and Christie literally eliminated it in one day,” Mr. Fulop said. “Killed it.”)
“We – the state – under the Christie administration, have given hundreds of millions of dollars, both through the legislature and Christie’s bipartisan incentives, to attract businesses and residents to move from New York to New Jersey. Obviously, many things come into a person’s decision to move a business or resident, but transportation seems to be one of the major driving forces.
“When you look at the state’s economy, for the most part the only bright spot has been the Hudson County mass transportation area, with PATH and the light rail,” he added. “It really incentivized a lot of businesses to move here. Anything that damages it is counterintuitive.
“To give hundreds of millions of dollars to attract people to move here – and on the other hand to curtail an asset that would attract people to move here – it’s kind of confusing.
“Why would they even propose it?”
He pointed to another counterintuitive action.
“The Port Authority’s capital budget has $10 billion to extend the PATH all the way to Newark Airport,” he said. “That would give a single-seat ride to downtown Jersey City, Hoboken, or Manhattan. That is a huge economic incentive, and not many cities have that.
“Nobody is thinking through the implications of investing $10 billion, and on the other hand cutting service on the same train.”
Mr. Fulop pointed out that most overnight PATH riders are “not only late-night revelers, or people going into New York for a night out. They are health-care workers, security guards, people with janitorial or maintenance jobs. They are low-income jobs, and people rely on those jobs.”
Why does he think that the governors’ report included the PATH cuts? “I think – and I’ve also heard this – that the New York contingent at the Port Authority advocates for it because the PATH makes New Jersey more competitive.”
If that’s true, why did the Jersey side go along?
“I think it’s just laziness on the part of the chair of the Port Authority, who is a Jersey guy,” Mr. Fulop said. “And Christie – I just don’t think he’s engaged with pushing it through.
“Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I would like to think that if Christie thought more about it, he would have pushed back.
“But he doesn’t seem to care that much about New Jersey anymore. He might just be disengaged.
“Maybe Governor Christie circa 2011 would have beat this back. Christie circa 2015 – not so much.”