Senate President Stephen Sweeney opposes the idea of breaking up the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey but says the bistate agency needs to narrow its focus to transportation and transparency.
In an interview in a Boardwalk pizza shop, Sweeney said he doesn't think the Port Authority ought to break into smaller parts or spin off control of transportation assets such as airports, bridges or tunnels to New Jersey or New York, as will be contemplated by a Port Authority reform panel over the next six months. Gov. Chris Christie has said the idea should be explored.
"No. What I think they need is to be reformed," said Sweeney, D-Gloucester.
"I'm a believer that transportation authorities, and I'm talking all transportation authorities, need to go back to their original missions," Sweeney said, broadening his comments to include the Delaware River Port Authority. "... These authorities need to go back and refocus. All of their dollars need to go back into maintaining their bridges, their roads, and not into private-sector economic development."
The Port Authority, which was established in 1921, has grown to an $8.2 billion budget and $57 billion in assets, including a 12,000-acre real-estate empire that includes industrial parks and the Newark Legal Center.
Sweeney said recommendations for Port Authority changes will be made in September or October in a report by the state Legislature's special investigative committee co-chaired by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, and Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex.
"We have to look at reforms that make it more transparent, to show the process on how they determine why projects get picked and why projects don't get picked; what the due diligence was. They have to be more accountable, much more accountable," Sweeney said.
One of Port Authority reform panel's five members is former state Attorney General John Degnan, Christie's nominee to become Port Authority chairman. Degnan will be interviewed today by the Senate Judiciary Committee and could be confirmed by the full Senate later in the day, depending on how the interview goes.
Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Union, opposes Degnan because he agreed to be a member of a panel that reviews judicial candidates when the panel's members quit in protest over Christie's refusal to renominate Supreme Court Justice John Wallace Jr. Sweeney also opposed Christie's court maneuver but says he's willing to support Degnan.
"I expect that will be a lively conversation," Sweeney said. "Ray has raised a lot of issues and has been very aggressive, and I don't take for granted any of Ray's positions. But I also know a lot of other senators know Degnan and have known him from the past and respect him. So we'll see how it goes."
Midway through the interview, Sweeney learned the Port Authority had announced it would redirect $90 million in its $27.6 billion, 10-year construction plan to making improvements at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. He and Weinberg attended Wednesday morning's New Jersey Transit board meeting to press for a replacement terminal at a cost approaching $1 billion, with more space for buses, climate control and Wi-Fi.
"We did good! We got their attention," Sweeney said. "I think when the Senate president shows up and the majority leader, that makes a statement. That's great."
Michael Symons: 609-984-4336; email@example.com
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