WASHINGTON — A Senate subcommittee hearing on bridge and tunnel tolls turned into a battleground as state and authority officials defended rising tolls and opposed legislation sponsored by subcommittee chairman Frank Lautenberg, warning it could cripple their abilities to raise revenue and finance projects.
Words ran especially hot between Lautenberg, a Democrat from New Jersey, and Bill Baroni, deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey at the hearing, which was held by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee’s panel on surface transportation and merchant marine infrastructure, safety and security.
Lautenberg, a former commissioner at the Port Authority, used the hearing, entitled “Protecting Commuters: Ensuring Accountability and Oversight in Tolling,” to grill Baroni over the agency’s toll increases and to justify his bill, which would allow the U.S. Department of Transportation to override any toll increases considered too high.
The DOT had that power until passage of the Surface Transportation and Uniform Relocation Assistance Act of 1987, which eliminated its authority to regulate tolls over navigable waters.
The Port Authority is one of the nation’s largest issuers, with nearly $16 billion in outstanding consolidated bonds.
“Don’t get me wrong — I am not against tolling, nor am I against tolling authorities,” said Lautenberg, who served on the authority’s board of commissioners between 1978 and 1982. “But when I was commissioner, the toll to cross our bridges and tunnels was $2.00. In today’s money, that would be slightly more than $5.00. But today, Port Authority tolls are out of control.”
Lautenberg pointed out that tolls on three major routes connecting New York City and New Jersey — the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels and the George Washington Bridge — all cost $12 for a single car.
“When it costs $12 to drive your car across a bridge in America, something is wrong,” he said.
But Baroni was unapologetic, telling New Jersey’s senior senator that the Port Authority revenues fell $2.6 billion in 2011.
“We were facing a crisis,” Baroni testified. “We still face looming transportation challenges.”
Baroni argued that the authority offers significant discounts to motorists that use an E-ZPass electronic toll payment device, drive “green” cars, and drive at off-peak hours.
Steve Grabell, chief financial officer of National Freight Inc. who testified on behalf of the American Trucking Associations, complained about the steep toll costs for multi-axle vehicles.
But Baroni stuck to his guns and said trucks cause a logistical headache and damage roads far more than cars.
“Is it fair?” Lautenberg asked the Port Authority executive about the different toll rates.
“Is it fair for someone who doesn’t have an E-Z Pass? Is it fair for a truck that’s causing 10,000 times more damage? Yes, it’s fair,” Baroni said.
Baroni questioned whether Lautenberg, who as a former commissioner was allowed to travel toll-free on the New York and New Jersey tunnels and bridges, has the right to talk about toll hikes.
“It is impossible to discuss fairness in tolls if you don’t pay them,” according to Baroni.
But Lautenberg had no patience for that line of conversation, and told Baroni he wouldn’t allow such “silliness.”
He accused Baroni of presenting the panel with “a song and dance.”
“You’re automatically under oath when you sit at a congressional table,” Lautenberg thundered. “We want straight answers from you.”
North Carolina Secretary of Transportation Eugene Conti, testifying on behalf of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, which represents the nation’s state departments of transportation, warned against further intrusion of the federal government into tolling policy.
Tolls often back tax-exempt bonds, both for construction of new projects and maintenance of the toll road itself. With traditional gas-tax revenue falling, Conti said, lawmakers shouldn’t be weakening an important financing tool.
“Congress should develop national policies that support flexible use of both conventional and innovative funding and financing tools,” he said.
“The loss of tolling agencies’ ability to set their own rates would have a deeply unfavorable effect on their credit ratings, increasing the cost of capital and making it harder for such agencies to borrow money through issuances of bonds for much-needed capital improvements, maintenance and other essential services.,” Conti said.
“In addition, the bill would discourage use of toll-financed public-private partnership opportunities. Instead of granting maximum access and flexibility to a mix of funding and financing tools most appropriate for each state, including toll-based P3s, Congress would create new impediments to private investment through this legislation.”
Lautenberg said he has asked the Government Accountability Office to do a study on the practices of Interstate toll agencies.
The senator’s bill remains pending before the full Senate Transportation Committee.
Companion legislation introduced in the House by Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., is pending before a House Transportation subcommittee.