New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg has been spoiling for a fight ever since the Port Authority raised tolls to cross into New York. And yesterday, he got it.
Lautenberg invited Bill Baroni, the deputy director of the Port Authority, to testify at a Commerce Committee hearing that turned into little more than a showdown between the two men.
Lautenberg was commissioner of the Port Authority from 1978 to 1982, and he said that back then, the toll was $2, which would be about $5 in today’s dollars. “When it costs $12 to drive your car across a bridge in America, something is wrong,” Lautenberg said, adding that the decision to raise the rates was made “behind closed doors.”
Baroni countered that the Authority had actually held 10 public hearings on the toll increase, involving more than 1,500 people. He went through a list of crisis-level needs that necessitated the toll increase, from the Bayonne Bridge, which has to be raised to allow larger ships to pass under it, to the Lincoln Tunnel helix, which hadn’t been rehabbed in 70 years, to the George Washington Bridge’s suspender ropes, which need replacing.
But then he mentioned that Lautenberg, as a former commissioner, has a free E-ZPass, and that “it is impossible to argue fairness in tolls if you don’t pay them.” The whole thing spiraled into a war of words from there, with Baroni at one point obliquely comparing Lautenberg to Joe McCarthy.
The shoot-‘em-up nature of the hearing may have been the most entertaining part, but amidst the political theater there were some meaningful comments on the utility of tolling: for example, Baroni’s insistence that more funds from drivers are needed to bring his agency’s infrastructure into a state of good repair. Barring an increase in the gas tax, tolling is the only way to raise that revenue and maintain aging roads and bridges.