These Are the Tolls That Try Men’s Souls

My favorite public monopoly has always been the Port Authority of New Jersey & New York, as I like to think of it.

The PA is what monopolies, trusts, cartels, pools, combines, syndicates used to be before that socialist Republican president, Teddy Roosevelt, and his co-conspirator, the Marxist William Howard Taft, got a bug in their bonnets about forcing corporations to commit acts of indecency by exposing their inner workings.

As you may recall, at the end of the Gay Nineties (circa 1901-4) Republicans argued for open covenants, secretly arrived at, in breaking up such magnificent structures as the Northern Securities Company, a giant holding company which artfully combined three railroads controlling all rail prices throughout the Northeast, and the roads of James Hill, J.P. Morgan and Cornelius Vanderbilt in the Northwest with those of E. H. Harriman, the Rockefellers and the Goulds in the Southwest.

We don’t see that kind of absolute power in transportation anymore, except in the doings of the Port Authority.

Our PA is a theoretically nonprofit institution robber barons of the past would admire, the product of the invisible links between business to politics, politics to commissioners, making it the fourth strongest arm of government in New Jersey, second only to the Mafia.

And what a marvelous money-making machine it runs for fund raising to support it’s far-flung public service empire.

Why, they make 600 million dollars a year alone, just from the George Washington Bridge tolls, some of which I personally contribute. And that’s a petty cash item, compared to the $4.1 billion they took home last year from all the other bridges, tunnels, airports and seaport facilities.

The PA makes so much money from petroleum and its by-products, it could become a member of OPEC someday the way it’s going.

On land, sea and air, some critics think, my favorite monopoly is exceeding what the Congress might have intended when authorizing the bi-state agency in 1921. Some of us PA fans even believe the reason its enemies built the Tappan Zee Bridge all the way up in South Albany — as I think of everything beyond the Bronx — was in order to keep the PA’s hands off the rickety bridge between Nyack and Tarrytown.

As I cough up my $13 every time I cross the GWB during rush hours, I sometimes wonder why am I still paying a toll?

The bridge was finished in 1932. To pay for it, the states of New Jersey and New York each pitched into the kitty $5 million and $50 million in bonds were issued. Tolls were set with the understanding they would be dropped once the bondholders were paid off.

But the bondholders were paid off serially starting in 1953. Shouldn’t that have made the GWB toll free by now?

Oh, no, the PA said, in effect. We need the tolls to pay for our real estate development deals, like building more world trade center towers downtown, even though there aren’t enough tenants to occupy the ones the PA already helped finance with my toll money.

And why am I paying $13?

Ye olde original toll of 50 cents each way changed on May 5, 1975 (to $1.50). It was then that the toll began suffering from a strange disease, toll elephantiasis, which makes the toll expand to fill the loose change in commuters pocket. Others believe tolls are based on a Middle Eastern pasha’s secret formula: whatever the traffic will bear.

What a business model, I find myself musing at the tollbooth. Over Pay as You Go. We should all be in a toll position in life.

What I really like about our PA is that everything it does, such as making real estate deal with friends, is done in secret. Its finances are not as transparent as the CIA’s, whose black book budget even Congress doesn’t get to see.

The way the PA does its business reminds me of what Freemasons do in their temples – a secret more closely guarded today than the recipe for making atom bombs. My own father, a Mason a few degrees below the 32nd, refused to tell me the details of the Mason’s induction rite, for example. What are those handshakes, grips and passwords all about any way? “I could tell you, son,” he said. “But I’d have to kill you.”

So you can imagine how alarmed I was to read in the papers the other day that Sen. Schumer is calling for reforms in the bi-state agency’s way of doing business for decades, objecting to the heavy influence our Gov. Christie has on management.

Why was the senator meddling now?

Could it be because Sen. Schumer is angry that Gov. Christie cancelled the plan to build a third rail tunnel under the Hudson, a project known as ARC, and is using much of the money to rebuild that highway from hell, the Pulaski Skyway, one of the state’s many infrastructures falling down, which might have been a better use of PA toll collections?

All the rail tunnel might have done is some day relieve traffic jams at the GWB which already back up all the way to Wilkes-Barre.

Could it be that what may go down in the annals of transportation cock-ups as “The Great Highway Robbery of 2011” was an even greater crime than the closing down of those notorious two toll booth lanes in Fort Lee? Let’s face it, there are tie-ups in Fort Lee traffic every Saturday afternoon between noon and 5 PM when New Yorkers come over to shop in our malls.

Or because the tunnel was Sen. Schumer’s pet legislative project? How petty can you get?

Could it be because there seems to be some shady goings on behind the closed doors of the PA? Commissioners and staff seem to be leaving the Authority in unusual numbers.

First, there was the model Employee of the Year David Wildstein who jumped or was pushed from the seat of power as a $150,000-a-year man with no job title or job description. Then there was Chairman David Samson who one night last month was allowed to shuffle off to Buffalo, perhaps, a triumph of rascality. Now Anthony Sartor, chair of the agency subcommittee on the World Center Development, submitted his resignation (April 14) just after the Manhattan District Attorney announced it has opened a criminal investigation into the agency’s work rebuilding World Trade Center. Once thought to be the most secure of sinecures in public service, PA executives soon may have the life expectancy of kamikaze pilots in the Honorable Imperial Japanese Air Force in World War II.

Our beloved Port Authority has always been the classic example of the nexus where corrupt politics and public service, meet and shake hands. Is this the eleemosynary institution Sen. Schumer is threatening to open like a can of worms? I ask the senator, is nothing sacred?


Marvin Kitman
April 29, 2014

Marvin Kitman is the author of “The Making of the Preƒident 1789.” “George Washington’s Expense Account” by Gen. George Washington and Marvin Kitman PFC (Ret.) was the best-selling expense account in publishing history.