GAO criticizes tolling practices

A new report by the federal Government Accountability Office blasted the Port Authority that manages bridges and tunnels between New York and New Jersey — among other bi-state tolling agencies — for implementing toll increases without giving highway users adequate time to review and comment.

For the report, GAO examined practices by the Delaware River and Bay Authority, Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission, Delaware River Port Authority and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which together control 16 bridges and two tunnels.

In recent years, bi-state tolling authorities have come under scrutiny for hefty toll increases and other concerns, and GAO was asked by Congress to review their toll-setting decisions and oversight framework.

Truckers came out in force against toll increases approved by the NY/NJ Port Authority that required trucks to pay an additional $2 per axle beginning in late 2011 and then an additional $2 per axle in December of each year through 2015. Tolls on trucks paying cash will have the same increase but would be subject to an additional $3 per axle cash penalty, an astounding 163% increase.

Trucking interests protested the toll hikes pointing out that little of the revenue raised would benefit the infrastructure or the businesses that pay the majority of tolls for using the bridges and tunnels. They also criticized the lack of notice of proposed increases. Public hearings were only held on one day — and just three days before the hikes were to take effect.

For the study, GAO examined the authority of bi-state tolling authorities to set and use tolls and the factors that influence toll setting; the extent to which the authorities involve and inform the public in toll-setting decisions; and the extent to which the authorities are subject to external and internal oversight.

In its report, the GAO said a federal statute requiring bridge tolls to be “just and reasonable” has less influence on tolling decisions, in part, because no federal agency has authority to enforce the standard.

“Bi-state tolling authorities are not required to follow federal or general state requirements for involving and informing the public; they set their own policies that can be less stringent than practices of transportation agencies that follow federal or state requirements,” the GAO report says. “In their most recent toll increases, the bi-state authorities generally provided the public limited opportunities to learn about and comment on proposed toll rates before they were approved.”

For example, the GAO points out, one tolling authority did not hold any public toll hearings before raising rates, while another provided only one day for hearings.

“In contrast to federal and general state requirements and leading practices, the bi-state authorities did not in all cases have documented public involvement procedures for toll setting; provide the public with key information on the toll proposals in advance of public hearings; offer the public sufficient opportunities to comment on toll proposals; and provide a public summary of comments received before toll increases were approved,” the GAO says.

External oversight of the authorities studied is limited as only one of the four authorities examined has been regularly audited by a state audit entity, GAO states. “While these audits have uncovered areas of concern, the authority of most state audit entities to oversee the bi-state authorities is unclear. Differences in states' laws and disagreements between the bi-state authorities and state audit agencies have raised questions about the authority of several states to provide oversight,” GAO concludes.

GAO says while it does not make recommendations to non-federal entities; nonetheless the tolling authorities could benefit from “greater transparency in public involvement and clearer lines of external oversight.”

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