Wall Street Journal

Port Authority Seeks Big Increases

Tolls for Bridges and Tunnels Would Rise by 50% or More, and PATH Fares Would Jump $1 Under a Two-Part Plan

The Wall Street Journal — Saturday, August 6, 2011


For New Jersey commuters, getting to the city could become a lot more expensive.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is proposing a two-part fare and toll hike that would increase tunnel and bridge tolls by 50% or more and raise PATH fares by $1.

For E-ZPass holders, tolls would increase $4 soon — and another $2 in 2014. If approved, the increases could take effect as early as next month.

That would give the Port Authority significantly more money for projects such as replacing the road helix to the Lincoln Tunnel on the New Jersey side and raising the Bayonne Bridge. The proposal comes after three years of zero-percent growth in operating expenses and $5 billion in cuts from such projects, the agency said.

The last time the Port Authority raised fares was in 2008, when tolls effectively went up $2 to $3, while the PATH fare rose by 25 cents.

The Port Authority, in seeking such steep hikes, is giving New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie room to approve lesser toll and fare increases while still giving the Port Authority the money it needs for projects such as completing the World Trade Center.

The governors sent out a joint statement expressing "significant concerns," and saying they would review the proposal in light of the Port Authority's worries about a potential downgrade to its bond rating — a factor that wasn't mentioned by the Port Authority.

"The Port Authority is facing financial issues, but so are families in the states of New York and New Jersey, and the answer cannot always be an indiscriminate and exorbitant increase in the cost to the taxpayer, or in this case, toll payer," the statement said. "As families must carefully and effectively manage their finances at this difficult time, so must government."

While Mr. Christie says he hasn't raised taxes and opposes a gas-tax increase, he allowed fares on New Jersey Transit to increase while refusing to rule out toll increases.

The increases are much larger than what the agency had been considering internally for the past year, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Under the proposal, tolls for E-ZPass holders would rise to $12 from $8 during peak hours, while off-peak tolls would rise to $10, from $6. Those paying in cash would face a $7 increase under the plan, meaning it could cost $15 to cross the George Washington Bridge.

Other affected bridges include the Bayonne, the Goethals and the Outerbridge Crossing, as well as the Holland and Lincoln tunnels.

A second series of hikes — totaling $2 for cash and E-ZPass holders at all times — would go into effect in 2014.

The Port Authority is also proposing to raise the base PATH train fare by $1, to $2.75 from $1.75. The average fare — which includes the multifare discount — would increase to $2, from $1.30. And the 30-day unlimited pass would increase to $89 from $54.

The Tri-State Transportation Campaign pointed fingers at both governors for using Port Authority funding rather than state funds for some transportation costs.

Labor, construction and business groups sent out a flurry of statements in support of the proposal within minutes of the announcement, while commuter and transportation groups decried the hikes.

Kathryn Wylde, president and chief executive officer of Partnership for New York City, said that though the increases are "significant" they are necessary.

From the standpoint of the business community, she said, "the total increases are a burden but having our transportation system fall apart or failing to finish the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan would be even more troubling."

Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, the executive director of consumer watchdog group New Jersey Citizen Action, said the toll increases would hurt the people least able to pay.

"There are times when tolls need to be raised to be able to maintain the roads, but to have double-digit increases just seems to be unconscionable in these economic times, when it has no connection to what kinds of increases people are seeing at their jobs," she said.

The agency said the toll and fare increase would fund a new $33 billion, 10-year capital plan, which includes raising the Bayonne Bridge so that new, larger ships can fit underneath it, and replacing the 592 suspender ropes of the George Washington Bridge, both of which are estimated to cost $1 billion. Other projects include building an $800 million bus garage at the Port Authority Bus Terminal and $360 million in security investments at the region's airports.

The authority's Board of Commissioners will hold nine public hearings in New York and New Jersey on Aug. 16. The board will vote on a final plan on Aug. 19; it would go into effect 10 days later provided it is not vetoed by either governor.

Andrew Grossman and Michael Vilensky contributed to this article.

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