New York commuters complained they are getting stuck with the bill for the new World Trade Center and post-9/11 security projects as authorities moved Tuesday to double the cost of entering the city from $8 to $17 per car.
At crowded hearing rooms on both sides of the Hudson River, angry commuters traded turns at the microphone with labor union members who are eager to keep toll money flowing into ground zero and other construction projects managed by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
"Why are the people of northern New Jersey paying for the attacks that were against all of America?" said Brook Wiers of Jersey City, N.J., during a meeting near the Holland Tunnel.
Entering New York City would cost motorists $17 by 2014, up from the current $8, if the toll increases are approved by the governors of New York and New Jersey. The fare for the PATH subway trains under the Hudson River would rise from $1.75 to $2.75.
Much of the money is going to fund the $11 billion World Trade Center. Commuters complained the building complex has become a national symbol since 9/11 and that Americans elsewhere should help with rebuilding the site.
"It should be on a national level," said 47-year-old Richard Brescher, who attended a hearing at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan. "When New Orleans had a problem the government stepped in to help New Orleans. Every time there's some kind of national catastrophe the government steps in. But here it seems like it's just us paying."
The Port Authority receives no tax money, so most of its revenue comes from tolls and fees, including rent paid by airlines at its four New York-area airports. Other commuters complained that highway toll money is being used for projects that have little to do with maintaining the bridges and tunnels.
"The Port Authority is making gobs of money from that sector, the bridges and tolls," Jason Ertel, a commuter from Clifton, N.J. "What I don't understand is how every morning as I drive down to pay my $8, my fillings are getting rattled out and the shocks of my car are being beat to death."
Union leaders, meanwhile, said construction funded by the higher tolls would create jobs and help jump-start the region's economy. At both the bus terminal and Holland Tunnel meetings, most of the seats were occupied by union members wearing orange T-shirts that said "Port Authority (equals) Jobs."
The Port Authority estimates that 167,000 jobs would be created over 10 years if the $33 billion proposal is approved.
"While no one likes to see tolls and fares increased, these actions are desperately needed to ensure that New York remains the business and economic center of the world," said Chris Columbia, director of the Laborers-Employers Cooperation and Education Trust.
In Jersey City, the room grew hushed when longtime union member Randy Bostick of Irvington tearfully recounted how his lack of work had left him on the verge of being evicted from his apartment and without enough money to put his belongings in storage.
"I'm at the mercy of this program being approved," Bostick said. "I need this so bad."
Most of the speakers were union members. At the bus terminal hearing, some read statements echoing points that Cedric Fulton, the Port Authority's director of bridges, tunnels and terminals, had given in his opening statement. The Port Authority said it played no role in organizing the union members.
Other speakers condemned the Port Authority for trying to rush through the hikes with one day for public comment. Some objected to the timing, just weeks before memorial services at ground zero.
"In this time, 10 years after 9/11, to raise this a month before the anniversary is a slap in the face not only of the victims but of residents still dealing with the residual effects of those terrible attacks," said Eric Anders Nilsson of Jersey City.
The Port Authority's board is set to vote on the plan on Friday. Either New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo could veto it within 10 days.
Hawley reported from New York.