Port Authority transparency: Politics or progress?

TRENTON – The deputy director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said politics is at the heart of a bill that cleared the Senate Transportation Committee today.

A co-sponsor of the bill, however, said that the bill has accomplished one of its goals: It has brought the Authority to the table.

Deputy Executive Director and former state Sen. Bill Baroni unsuccessfully urged the panel to hold S1115 so that he could work on it with sponsors.

But the panel released the bill 3-0-1, with the lone Republican Sen. Joseph Pennacchio, abstaining.

Baroni argued that the legislation is redundant and would place at risk reforms already achieved.

One of the bill’s provisions would establish a blackout period on agenda items five business days before a meeting, which he said would have endangered gains made by the Authority if such a rule had already been in place.

With a bi-state agency that entails ongoing negotiations over contracts, work proceeds on items right up to the day of a meeting, Baroni said. He cited numerous examples of projects he said would have been jeopardized or lost if they had had to wait six more weeks until the next meeting: the Bayonne Bridge, the Mediterranean Shipping Co. terminal, a Marriott hotel, a Conde Nast lease at the World Trade Center, and more.

Baroni said these projects totaled billions of dollars and thousands of construction and other jobs that could have been lost under the provisions of this bill.

“There is no public agency in New Jersey that is investing more in job-creating, capital construction than the Port Authority,’’ he said. “We are building some of the most important projects in America.”

Meeting sites and times

A sore point of commuters last year concerned the sites and times of hearings into the proposed toll hike, and this bill would address that issue as well.

Critics said the nine hearings were deliberately set at times and places hard to get to, which Baroni denied.

“Apparently there was no outrage when Corzine did it,’’ Baroni said, adding that Corzine held his hearings in hotel ballrooms that he said cost hundreds of thousands of dollars whereas the Authority held its hearings last year in public locations.

“If I had held public hearings in a hotel ballroom you would have had me here beating me up,” Baroni said. “We purposefully put these hearings in places we didn’t have to pay for.”

There was debris from a ceiling falling at a hearing held in a Fort Lee garage, sponsor Sen. Robert Gordon said.

Baroni argued that many of the provisions of the bill are redundant and unnecessary.

Gordon responded that the bill was about “institutionalizing the process,’’ and he welcomed Baroni’s invitation to work to improve the bill.

“We have gotten the Port Authority here at the table to begin those negotiations,” Gordon said. “I ask to vote this bill out and we will begin the process of doing the fine-tuning.’’

Yet Baroni maintained that politics would undercut the reforms already achieved. “That’s not reform,’’ he said, “it’s a press release.’’

He reminded the panel that when he was sent to the Authority two years ago, his fellow legislators urged him to make sure New Jersey got its fair share from an unresponsive agency. He asked them to let him continue to do that work.

Port Authority transparency bill advances Port Authority transparency: Politics or progress?