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NY-NJ Port Authority says 'sorry' for huge bridge backup

By Hilary Russ

(Reuters) - The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey apologized on Wednesday for a traffic jam in September that snarled the busiest bridge in the United States as its board opened a review into reforming the Port Authority.

Scott Rechler, the board's vice chairman, will lead a five-member special oversight committee that, he said, will be "forward-looking." It will not probe the events that led to the gridlock because there were "plenty" of other investigations already ongoing, he said.

The gridlock on the George Washington Bridge over four days in September has embroiled the administration of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in controversy. A federal prosecutor is investigating whether any laws were broken when a top aide to Christie ordered seemingly politically motivated traffic jams.

The board is "deeply sorry for the inconvenience caused to our travelers," said Chairman David Samson, who was nominated by Christie and confirmed by the New Jersey Senate in 2011. Other board members had raised the idea of apologizing earlier in the day.

The scandal has dampened Christie's position as a potential top contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 and renewed calls for reform at the massive agency, which has long been seen as lacking transparency.

The oversight committee will examine the agency's whistleblower rules, governance and structure. It could propose changes to the management structure of the Port Authority, whose executive director is appointed by the New York governor and whose deputy executive director is appointed by the New Jersey governor.

Rechler promised that the oversight committee would not just release reports but "be a committee of action," as he said that "everything is on the table."

One New Jersey lawmaker has questioned whether a group of politically appointed commissioners -- all of whom are named by either the New York or New Jersey governor -- was the best way forward.

"We need a whole overhaul there," New Jersey Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat, told Reuters recently. She co-heads a legislative investigation into whether politics were at play in the bridge incident.

Even so, she said, "To have a commission to study a committee of their own commissioners, who haven't done anything as it was under their noses, I have no confidence in."

The Port Authority's management structure has increasingly been blamed for creating a bifurcated agency, one with "two independent lines of authority," as commissioner William Schuber said on Wednesday, rather than one with a truly regional economic development mission.

Samson said he "wholeheartedly" endorsed the mission of the oversight committee.

Samson's chairmanship has been called into question because of involvement by his private law firm in development projects that raised questions about possible conflicts of interest. His name also surfaced in subpoenaed documents in the legislative investigation of the bridge lane closures.

Board members would not answer questions about that subject on Wednesday.

Critics and former officials also complain that the agency has been used over the years as a way for governors to reward allies with jobs, but that Christie has stuffed it with more appointees than any other governor.

One of those loyalists, David Wildstein, ordered the lane closures that led to the traffic mess. He resigned in December as pressure over the controversy grew. The authority has since eliminated his position as director of interstate projects, a post that didn't exist before he arrived.

Asked on Wednesday what that job description was supposed to have meant, Executive Director Patrick Foye said, "I understand he was purely interested in politics."

(Reporting by Hilary Russ; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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