BELMAR, N.J. - The uproar over a proposal to raise tolls for traveling between New Jersey and New York reached new levels Wednesday, with Gov. Christie dismissing claims that he knew about the hikes in advance and the regional transit agency saying security projects would be threatened if the increases aren't implemented.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey announced plans Friday to increase fares by $4 on the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, the George Washington Bridge, and on three other bridges, as much as doubling the cost of travel. The same day, Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo released a joint statement saying they realized what was at stake if the transit system was underfunded but were concerned about what the increases would do to commuters and businesses.
Christie, a Republican, initially said he learned about the proposal Thursday and thought officials were kidding when he heard how much they wanted tolls to go up. On Wednesday, Christie changed his earlier statement, saying the authority's chairman and deputy director laid out the proposal for him last Wednesday.
Democrats have said it is difficult to believe that Christie was blindsided by the plan by those at the helm of the Port Authority, who know that he and Cuomo have veto authority over the proposal. Several Port Authority officials were appointed by Christie.
"I find it almost unimaginable that the Port Authority would be headed in this direction and neither governor would know anything," U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) told the Associated Press.
Christie called those allegations speculation and said he did not know what would be in the proposal until he heard it Wednesday.
"I don't live in a perfect world," Christie said. "This is when I got the information."
The two governors can veto the plan if is passed by the Port Authority in an Aug. 19 vote. Neither Christie nor Cuomo has said whether he would veto the plan, but Cuomo has called it a "nonstarter."
Labor unions across New Jersey and New York have supported the plan, saying thousands of jobs are on the line if additional revenues are not secured to shore up infrastructure projects.
The Port Authority said Wednesday that of the $6 billion it has spent on security since the Sept. 11 attacks, only a fraction has come from federal grants, requiring the agency to use toll revenues to ensure passengers' safety. Port Authority spokesman Ron Marsico said security projects would be scaled back or deferred if the toll hikes did not go through.
Other projects at risk include the raising of the Bayonne Bridge and the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site.
"This is all about a balance. The World Trade Center project has run wildly over budget - billions of dollars over budget," Christie said. "That's the fault of previous administrations who did not put the type of discipline in place that you would need to."
Christie's comments came at a beachside news conference in Belmar, where he touted the state's beaches and waterways and said his administration was carefully balancing environmental protections and economic growth.