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New Jersey legislative panel looks into bridge toll hike

In this Friday, Oct. 22, 2010, file photo, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Executive Deputy Director Bill Baroni speaks at John F. Kennedy International Airport. On Dec. 13, 2013, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced Baroni's resignation.(Photo: Henny Ray Abrams, AP)ASBURY PARK, N.J. — The chairman of the joint New Jersey legislative panel looking into the closing of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge says reports of a campaign to manipulate the selling of a toll hike increase to the public in 2011 by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey throws fresh doubt on the lane closures.
The same group of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie political associates involved in the George Washington Bridge lane closures was involved in the toll hike scheme, The Record and The Star-Ledger newspapers reported March 2.
“It’s a further layer of allegations that cast more suspicion on excuses and explanations of who knew what when” about the closing of two of three access lanes to the bridge from Fort Lee, said Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat from Middlesex, N.J., co-chair of the New Jersey Legislative Select Committee on Investigation.
The select committee issued a subpoena to the Port Authority in February about the toll hike approved Aug. 9, 2011.
“We’re waiting for answers,” Wisniewski said. “The subpoena is on point to these allegations.”
That wait is nothing new.
Wisniewski started sending the Port Authority Freedom of Information Act requests as chairman of the Assembly Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee in the spring of 2011 as talks to increase tolls were underway.
“We got nothing,” he said.
It wasn’t until the committee received subpoena power that documents started flowing in, eventually 61,000 of them.
“It was like, here’s your haystack, find your needle,” Wisniewski said.
But some documents the committee subpoenaed were not supplied, Wisniewski said. A dispute over what could be regarded as privileged documents was underway when the lane closures occurred, he said.
The Port Authority in 2011 proposed a massive toll hike so that Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo could later scale it back and gain support for a softened increase, allowing the two governors to claim false credit as fiscal hawks, said separate stories in The Record and The Star-Ledger.
The approved plan is increasing Hudson River tolls in stages to $12.50 for E-ZPass subscribers and $15 for cash customers by December 2015. The maximum initially proposed tolls were $14 and $17.
The extra revenue in part will fund a $942 million “regional bank.”
To political observers, it’s not news that gamesmanship was involved in the toll increase, said pollster Patrick Murray.
“It was no surprise to those of us who were following this that the (initial) toll hike was higher than what they planned to do as a way to give governors in both states political cover,” said Murray.
“What’s surprising is the extent to which (William E. “Bill”) Baroni (Jr.) and (David M.) Wildstein manipulated the process,” Murray said. “These things are done on the QT. But Baroni and Wildstein were doing a lot more than what was needed. They were rubbing it in people’s faces. It was as though they were sending a message: ‘Hey, we’re Christie’s guys and we’re taking over.’ “
Baroni was the deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Christie announced Baroni’s resignation in December. Wildstein was director of interstate capital projects for the Port Authority until he resigned in December.
Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said it’s unclear how this will affect Christie in light of the scandals already casting a shadow over his administration. The public already knew Christie was not above playing politics, Murray said. That faded with his surging popularity after Superstorm Sandy hit. If anything, this further erodes what’s left of the popularity brought by the storm, he said.
Contributing: Michael Symons, Asbury Park (N.J.) Press

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