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GAO initiates probe of NE toll authorities at Lautenberg request

The investigation was called for by U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Surface Transportation.

The Trucker Staff

7/24/2012

After controversial toll hikes by toll authorities in northeastern states, the U.S. Government Accountability Office has initiated an inquiry into whether the agencies are remaining true to their congressionally approved compacts, media sources reported late last week.

In question are toll increases by bi-state toll agencies on bridges in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. The Delaware River Port Authority and the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission, which operate bridges that connect Pennsylvania and New Jersey, also are part of the inquiry.

The investigation was called for by U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Surface Transportation.

Lautenberg’s office issued a statement Monday saying he requested the probe following, "a painful Port Authority [of New York and New Jersey] toll increase and an independent audit that called the agency ‘dysfunctional.'"

In September, peak period Port Authority tolls rose from $8 to $9.50 for E-ZPass users and $12 for cash customers, with tolls scheduled to rise again in December, to $10.25 and $13, respectively, before maxing out at $12.50 and $15 in 2015.

The Port Authority toll hike is also being investigated by Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, who chairs the Assembly Transportation Committee and the state Democratic Party. The hike also led to a lawsuit by area AAA clubs, alleging the Port Authority is breaking federal law by spending toll money on the World Trade Center site.

A spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey confirmed the agency has received notice of the inquiry and would “cooperate with it,” reported the New Jersey Record.

At issue are whether there is enough legislative oversight of toll authorities; whether the toll-setting process is “transparent”; how toll revenue is spent and whether the agencies have “kept true to their original intent and prevailing practices,” the Record quoted GAO spokesman Ned Griffith as saying. These are areas where the Port Authority has faced criticism from various lawmakers, including Lautenberg.

The Port Authority, created in 1921, is steered by governor-appointed commissioners from New York and New Jersey and receives millions of annual tax dollars.

Lautenberg spokesperson Caley Gray said, “Given the cloud of misinformation surrounding the toll hikes and use of toll revenue, a federal investigation may help bring some transparency to the Port Authority so that one day maybe commuters won’t have to empty their wallets on the way to work.”

The GAO is an investigative arm of Congress and at the request of lawmakers examines government programs and agencies.

The Trucker staff can be reached to comment on this article at editor@thetrucker.com.

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