NY-NJ Port Authority board says 'sorry' for huge bridge backup

Reuters News
Posted: Feb 19, 2014 2:38 PM

By Hilary Russ

(Reuters) - Board members of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey offered an unofficial apology on Wednesday for a traffic jam in September that snarled the busiest bridge in the United States as they opened a review into reforming the Port Authority.

Scott Rechler, the board's vice chairman, will lead a five-member special oversight committee that, he said, will be "forward-looking." It will not probe the events that led to the gridlock because there were "plenty" of other investigations already ongoing, he said.

The gridlock on the George Washington Bridge over four days in September has embroiled the administration of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in controversy. A federal prosecutor is investigating whether any laws were broken when a top aide to Christie ordered seemingly politically motivated traffic jams.

The scandal has dampened Christie's position as a potential top contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 and renewed calls for reform at the massive agency, which has long been seen as lacking transparency.

The oversight committee will examine the agency's whistleblower rules, governance and structure. It could propose changes to the management structure of the Port Authority, whose executive director is appointed by the New York governor and whose deputy executive director is appointed by the New Jersey governor.

"I think the Port Authority owes the patrons of our facilities an apology for what happened," commissioner Richard Bagger, who co-chairs the new committee, said after a Port Authority board meeting on Wednesday.

Rechler promised that the oversight committee would not just release reports but "be a committee of action," as he said that "everything is on the table."

One New Jersey lawmaker has questioned whether a group of politically appointed commissioners -- all of whom are named by either the New York or New Jersey governor -- was the best way forward.

"We need a whole overhaul there," New Jersey Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat, told Reuters recently. She co-heads a legislative investigation into whether politics were at play in the bridge incident.

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Even so, she said, "To have a commission to study a committee of their own commissioners, who haven't done anything as it was under their noses, I have no confidence in."

The Port Authority's management structure has increasingly been blamed for creating a bifurcated agency, one with "two independent lines of authority," as commissioner William Schuber said on Wednesday, rather than one with a truly regional economic development mission.

Board Chairman David Samson said he "wholeheartedly" endorsed the mission of the oversight committee.

Samson's chairmanship has been called into question because of involvement by his private law firm in development projects that raised questions about possible conflicts of interest. His name also surfaced in subpoenaed documents in the legislative investigation of the bridge lane closures.

Board members would not answer questions about that subject on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Hilary Russ; Editing by Leslie Adler)