Updated July 30, 2020 by Stewart Mader
In a move that defies his 2009 campaign promise that, “sunlight is the best disinfectant and will bring transparency and ethics to government”, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo vetoed a bill that would have significantly reformed governance at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. His veto was announced in a joint press release with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who would have faced significant pressure to approve the bill in his state if Cuomo had signed it into law in New York.
In the weeks after the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal became public, implicating senior members of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s administration, calls for reform of the agency centered on the outsize influence by the two governors who oversee it. In response, the two governors convened a “bi-state Special Panel on the Future of the Port Authority” in May 2014 to consider changes. As WNYC’s Andrea Bernstein reported in May, the panel consisted only of insiders – two appointees selected by each governor, along with each governor’s legal counsel. “Not on the committee: anyone from academia, a think tank, a watchdog group or with a transportation background.” The panel was to deliver a report within 60 days of its formation.
The legislatures of both states took on the issue of reform, and on June 11 the New York State Assembly unanimously approved the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Transparency and Accountability Act of 2014. The New York State Senate followed suit with a unanimous vote June 18, sending the bill to Governor Cuomo for his signature. In New Jersey, the Senate unanimously passed identical legislation September 22, and the General Assembly passed the measure unanimously November 13. The legislation would have required commissioners to acknowledge in writing their fiduciary duty to the agency, and their duty of loyalty and care to the authority and its mission – a marked departure from the status quo, in which each commissioner’s allegiance is to their appointing governor. The bill also required the authority’s financial statements to be certified by top officials and subjected to generally accepted accounting and auditing standards, and would have introduced strict ethics, whistleblowing, public disclosure, and conflict of interest policies.
Instead, the bill was vetoed in the middle of the last weekend in December, when, presumably, most people are busy spending the holidays with family and friends.
In addition to the veto, the governors finally revealed the report that was originally promised 60 days after the special panel began its work in May. Among the report’s suggestions is a blockbuster: eliminating weekday and weekend overnight PATH service between 1-5AM to achieve an annual cost savings of about $10M. Brian Murphy, assistant professor of history at Baruch College and author of the forthcoming book Building the Empire State: Political Economy in the Early Republic, first noted the panel’s suggestion late Saturday night:
Among Christie-Cuomo Port Authority special panel's recommendations: no more PATH trains on Fri & Sat nights! pic.twitter.com/bxsifELC4I
— Brian Murphy (@Burrite) December 28, 2014
Here’s the full text of the suggestion:
PATH is one of only four heavy-rail systems in America to provide service 24 hours a day for seven days a week; the others are MTA, CTA (which runs only limited service overnight), and the Pennsylvania Port Authority (“PATCO”), which operates a single line from Philadelphia to New Jersey. The PATH’s ridership falls substantially overnight, especially on weeknights, when overnight riders between 1:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. constitute less than 1% of daily riders. The cost of providing this service per passenger rises substantially, from $0.01 to $0.02 per passenger during weekday peak hours to an average of $1.15 per rider overnight.
Eliminating overnight service during weekends (i.e., eliminating service on Friday night/early Saturday and Saturday night/early Sunday) would produce operational and capital expense savings. Operational savings would include savings on energy, labor, and station operations; and capital savings would result from allowing capital improvements to be conducted without train interruption. Currently, the PATH shuts down one of the two tracks in each direction during the overnight hours to allow for capital maintenance. This reduces service so that trains come every 35 minutes in each direction. PATH could achieve operational and capital savings estimated to be at least $10 million per year from stopping service altogether between 1:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. on weeknights.
The impact of a service reduction would be limited. Assuming that some riders slightly alter their travel plans to ride the last train before operations cease or the first train after they recommence, approximately one-half of one percent of PATH riders during the time period (just under 1,500) would be affected. If PATH decided to offer riders an alternative, bus service for these customers at the cost of $4 per passenger would cost approximately $1.5 million per year.
Cutting overnight PATH service would be devastating for communities on both sides of the Hudson, especially for hard-working New Yorkers and New Jerseyans in industries like construction, healthcare, and hospitality who rely on PATH to come home from an overnight job or commute to a job with an early morning start. The $10M cost reduction – a tiny portion of the Port Authority’s $7B budget – would likely mean job losses for the hard working men and women of PATH, who keep the trains running 24/7.
It would be devastating to a region that relies on mass transit more than any other in the country. Hoboken, one of the cities served by PATH, has the highest rate of transit ridership in the nation at 56%.
It would be devastating to a region that faces the likely closure of the other major mass transit link between New York and New Jersey:
The century-old North River Tunnels are already operating over capacity, and the brackish water that inundated them during Hurricane Sandy has caused deterioration that may force Amtrak to shut them down for repairs. Any disruption in service to the only intercity rail tunnels connecting New York and New Jersey would be felt along the entire Northeast Corridor, from Boston to Washington, and as far west as Chicago.
It would be devastating to the economic growth and vitality of cities like Hoboken and Jersey City, whose proximity and easy access to Manhattan are among their strongest assets:
— Brian Murphy (@Burrite) December 28, 2014
The reaction from elected officials is strong and unanimous against this ill-conceived and shortsighted idea. Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer released a statement Sunday vowing to fight any efforts to cut service to the city:
I will vigorously oppose any efforts to cut PATH service,” said Mayor Dawn Zimmer. “This irresponsible proposal is a classic example of being penny wise and dollar foolish. Shutting down overnight PATH service will cost the State of New Jersey many times the supposed savings in lost economic activity, sales tax and business tax revenues. Cities like Hoboken, Jersey City and Newark are growing because residents and businesses want good access to transportation options like the PATH. It is incomprehensible that any New Jersey official would be willing to even consider this proposal that would only hurt the State’s economy.
We should be investing to expand, not limit our regional transit system,” added Mayor Zimmer. “I applaud the report recommendations to build a new Port Authority Bus Terminal and pursue additional trans-Hudson tunnel capacity and hope the recommendation to undermine the PATH system is quickly scrapped.
Hoboken City Council Member Ravi Bhalla:
— Ravinder Bhalla (@RaviBhalla) December 28, 2014
Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop:
— Steven Fulop (@StevenFulop) December 28, 2014
Jersey City Council Member Candice Osborne:
Problem #1 – low income people who work at night. What should they take a $45 taxi? http://t.co/HHba9D5lFJ
— Candice Osborne (@candiceosborne) December 28, 2014
Prob #2 – have you ever ridden the path late at night? What do you suggest these people get in cars and drive??? http://t.co/HHba9D5lFJ
— Candice Osborne (@candiceosborne) December 28, 2014
New Jersey Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg:
— Loretta Weinberg (@SenatorLorettaW) December 28, 2014
Assemblyman John Wisniewski – chair of the New Jersey General Assembly Transportation Committee who led the legislature’s lane closure investigation:
— John Wisniewski (@AssemblymanWiz) December 27, 2014
Even Bette Midler had something to say:
— Bette Midler (@BetteMidler) December 28, 2014
“We do need to remember that Governor Cuomo and I are the only two people who are elected in either state who have authority over the Port Authority”
However, when a reporter asked Cuomo in February about his administration’s response to news of the lane closures, Cuomo said:
“I didn’t personally get involved in it,” he said. “Whoever is responsible for the Port Authority was dealing with it, but I didn’t.”
Christie says he and Cuomo are the only two elected officials with authority over the Port Authority, but Cuomo denies direct responsibility for the agency, saying “whoever is responsible” was dealing with the lane closures. What is clear is the two governors aren’t interested in making any improvements to the agency’s governance that would reveal the details of their influence, or interfere with their ability to direct resources to pet projects and political allies.
The governors deserve blame for this idea, just as they deserve blame for their 2011 scheme to intentionally inflate proposed toll increases so they could look good opposing them and criticizing supposed fiscal mismanagement at the Port Authority:
Eight people familiar with the operation were interviewed by The Record, and they cast doubt on claims that the governors had no prior knowledge of the toll-increase proposal and suggested that it was intentionally inflated. The sources, each with independent knowledge of the events that took place, were interviewed separately.
Don’t blame the Port Authority for Christie and Cuomo’s plan to cut PATH service. That’s what they want the public to do so they can continue to look clean.