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Port Authority sued in federal court over toll hikes

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

CLIFFVIEW PILOT HAS IT FIRST: A Bergen Community College student has sued the Port Authority in federal court, alleging that the recent toll hikes are civil rights violations that keep him from seeing family, finding a better school and getting a job in the city.

Yoel Weisshaus admits in court papers that he owes toll money to the Port Authority, which, he said, has levied heavy fines against him and sent debt collectors to his house. The authority even contacted his parents and grandparents “looking for [me] and demanding that [I] pay for tolls” for its “unjust enrichment,” he alleges.

Weisshaus, who has been out of work since November 2009, is asking a federal judge to order that any future toll hikes require approval of the legislatures in both states and that the money from the increases be used only exclusively on bridges and tunnels – and not for rebuilding the World Trade Center.

If not, he said, the authority “will continue to increase the prices of toll excessively,” hurting those too poor to afford the river crossings, keeping him from seeing his family, denying him access to a four-year university where he could pursue a forensic accounting degree and preventing him from finding work in the city. This, he said, infringes on the rights of the people to pursue happiness.”

Both states gave the quasi-public agency the right to assess tolls only “to pay off debt incurred in building bridges and tunnels and for its basic maintenance” and “not to pay for the Port Authority real estate development,” alleges a 21-page complaint filed by Weisshaus in the U.S. Southern District Court in Manhattan.

Its creators “did not envision that the power of toll would be abused and used for projects not related to bridges and tunnels such as building a World Trade Center. In addition, the framers did not envision that the price of toll would exceed the affordable or basic income guideline of what travelers can afford.”

In fact, he says, the point of the authority was to make commerce and travel between the two states “easier and more affordable, by replacing the burden of traveling by water to land.” However, in addition to the burden it places on drivers, the toll hike has forced fare increases for using private bus companies, car services and other means of transportation, the suit filed by Weisshaus says.

“Further, [I] did not destroy the World Trade Center; neither did [i] authorize its destructions and should bear no responsibility in its reconstruction through travel taxes…. The World Trade Center has been since 2001 property leased by private developers, and is a political real estate development.”

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is guilty of “abuse of power and invasion of fundamental rights,” said Weisshaus, who claims the toll increases are “targeted to restrict minimum wage earners the right to travel.” The agency violated the Constitution by enacting the hikes “without announcing and providing enough time for the public to attend hearings for comment,” he adds.

Two “unannounced” hearings were held at inconvenient times for commuters, Weisshaus says.

Weisshaus, in his suit, accuses the authority of “attempting to use the increase of toll prices to restrict and discourage travelers from crossing the Hudson River…. The new toll price enacted by the Port Authority Sunday morning September 18, 2011 exceeds the minimum wage guideline of what a person under such income conditions can afford; specifically there is a public benefit to the relief sought in this action. Thus, these tolls are targeted to restrict minimum wage earners the right to travel.

“Therefore, there is no other relief but for the Court to declare that the revenues of toll cannot and shall not be used for any use other than maintenance and building of the current and future bridges and tunnels. Such relief will remedy the public from all abuse by the Port Authority using toll like an ATM machine to draw money.”

Although the authority said it needs the money to shore up a crumbling infrastructure and to finance rebuilding of the World Trade Center, Weisshaus said the agency “is using a short term crises to enrich unjustly for the long term.”

What’s more, he adds: “The World Trade Center was and will be a building that generates income to the Port Authority and is solely supported by the investment of investors and insurance funds collected as a result of its tragic destruction known as 9-11. Thus, there is no reason travelers should have to bear the burden of rebuilding the World Trade Center.”

Originally from Brooklyn, Weisshaus frequently visits his parent and grandparents there. He says in his suit that plaza clerks have frequently waved him through when he told them he couldn’t afford to pay – and then received violation notices, with fines attached, from the Port Authority. What could have been an $8 toll quickly became $58, records show. And it’s happened eight times in recent months.

The past several years, Weisshaus has been administrator of the Union of Rabbis, a charitable educational and scientific organization that looks to help Jewish people build a better life. He is pursuing an A.S. in Business Accounting, with a real estate law minor.

He has served as a student representative with BCC’s Council Committee for the President, investigated textbook conflicts, and headed the school’s Technology Subcommittee, overseeing the BCC website, its online college and its web marketing.

In this case, he’s serving as his own attorney.

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