Yoel vs. the Port Authority


yoel-weisshausThe New York Post reports: Yoel Weisshaus lives in a small apartment above a dance studio, where the sound of canned music and tap shoes float up through the thin floor.

He is a 30-year-old college student who gets by on loans and freelance jobs as a legal assistant and public notary. He does not have a bank account. He does not have a credit card. When he says he lives paycheck to paycheck, he means it quite literally: If he runs out of the money he keeps in the (sometimes torn) pocket of his pants, it means he has nothing until his next check comes along.

He drives a slightly dented 2003 Subaru Forrester, on which he is still making payments. Even his computer belongs to his grandmother.

“If you took all of my belongings — all of my laundry, everything — you could probably cash it out at a yard sale for about $500,” Weisshaus says. “I’m a peasant. The only difference between me and most other peasants is that I admit it.”

He is poor. He is powerless.

And he is challenging one of the richest, mightiest public agencies in America.

Weisshaus has filed a federal lawsuit against the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, claiming that its recent toll hike violates his constitutional right to freedom of movement. The New Milford, NJ, resident feels it’s unfair he has to pay $12 to cross the George Washington Bridge so the Port Authority can use part of that money to rebuild the World Trade Center.

He is representing himself in this case — he can’t always afford food, much less a lawyer. It’s one man against an organization with 7,000 employees, annual revenues of $3.6 billion, and total assets valued at $30 billion.

If it sounds like David and Goliath for the 21st century, it is that and more. Only people who squash ants for sport would consider Weisshaus v. Port Authority a fair fight.

“I’ve called him the Man of La Mancha, because he’s tilting at windmills,” says Lucille Roussin, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law who helped Weisshaus prepare his complaint. “But he takes his research very seriously and every now and then in this country, someone like that can actually disturb something like the Port Authority. I think he’s got a case.”

So call Yoel Weisshaus a hero for the common man. Or an example of democracy in action. Or just a fool who is wasting his time. But be aware the Port Authority calls him something else entirely: a toll cheat.

“Mr. Weisshaus has a good deal of chutzpah to sue the Port Authority over its recent toll increase, given that our violation records show he owes the agency more than $400 in unpaid tolls and fees,” the Port Authority said in a prepared statement in response to an inquiry about Weisshaus. “It is unfortunate that drivers like Mr. Weisshaus failed to pay the Port Authority more than $14 million in collective tolls in 2010 and 2009 alone, hurting the agency’s revenue stream.”

As for the lawsuit? “We have reviewed his complaint,” the statement said, “and it is without merit.”

Toll cheat or patriot? Yoel Weisshaus would say both. He admits he has failed to pay the toll at least eight times. Those violation notices, totaling $464, are the first eight plaintiff’s exhibits in his lawsuit.

But that’s just the eight times he’s been nailed for it. Weisshaus visits his grandparents in Brooklyn constantly. He lives in the suburbs, meaning public transportation is not a good option. So he drives. Sometimes he pays the toll. Other times, he tells the toll-booth attendant he has no money and drives through. The only question is whether the toll taker decides to turn him in.

It was his grandparents who, in more ways than one, inspired him to file this suit. Weisshaus got his first taste of the law through his grandmother, Gizella Weisshaus, 82, the original plaintiff in a lawsuit that eventually led to Swiss banks repaying Holocaust survivors for unclaimed accounts.

Then there’s Yoel’s grandfather, Josef Weisshaus, 93, who grew up in Romania. That grandfather’s grandfather — Yoel’s great-great-grandfather — was buried in Hungary.

“My grandfather could never visit his grandfather’s grave because there was a border to cross,” Yoel Weisshaus says. “It was no problem getting a passport for rich people, but the poor people couldn’t afford it. So they couldn’t go across the border.

“You see where I’m going with this? By 2021 if they keep raising tolls like this, it will cost $25 just to cross the bridge. Who is really going to be able to afford that?”

Certainly not Weisshaus. Born in Manhattan, he grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in a tightly knit community of Hasidic Jews. His first language is Yiddish. In 2004, he moved to New Jersey with just a few words of English.

“It was a real culture shock,” he says. “But I was opening myself up to the world.”

By 2007, he had earned his GED and enrolled in Bergen County Community College, where he began an accounting degree and became a lightning rod in student government. He challenged a professor who was making students buy books from a publishing company owned by his wife. He got the college to overturn its decision to close down its child-development center. An activist was born.

“I am always a person who is asking, ‘What can I do to make a difference in the world?’ ” Weishauss says.

That was his mindset on Aug. 5 when, sitting in his car waiting in the cash lanes — no E-ZPass for Weisshaus — he heard about the toll increase. Incensed, he started researching a lawsuit, which he filed Sept. 18.

He is seeking to enjoin the Port Authority from raising tolls without approval from both state legislatures, to have his current fines waived and to have his legal fees reimbursed. He said he does not want any money beyond that — just a little bit of economic fairness.

“I have no problem with rebuilding the World Trade Center, I just don’t want to have to pay for it,” Weisshaus says. “Maybe if they wanted to use that extra $4 to build another bridge that would ease congestion, that would be different, because as a traveler I would be getting some benefit from that. But they are sucking money out for something that is not legitimate. I cannot afford it, and I cannot accept it.”

The entity Yoel Weisshaus is challenging started in 1921 as, simply, a bi-state agency to manage ports. But it has added greatly to its empire over the ensuing 90 years. First bridges and tunnels. Then airports. Then buses, railroads, subways and, eventually, real estate.

It can be both byzantine and clubbish, governed by commissioners — mostly high-level business executives and financiers — who are appointed by the governors of each state. The commissioners meet in public but seem to make decisions in private, once going nearly three years (from January 2008 to November 2010) without recording a single “nay” vote, an astounding 2,068 consecutive “ayes.”

It has a reputation for being sloppy with its money — the New York state Comptroller’s Office just released an audit that said the average Port Authority employee received over $12,000 in overtime pay last year. Yet under Executive Director Chris Ward, who resigned last month before Gov. Cuomo could get around to firing him, the agency’s operating budget has actually been frozen for the last three years.

Plus, the same governors who feigned outrage at the August toll hikes — a bit of political theater as transparent as it was disingenuous — have been trying to use the Port Authority as a piggy bank. New Jersey Gov. Christie Christie wants Port Authority money for rebuilding the Pulaski Skyway. Cuomo wants it to help bail out the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

Yet while it can be difficult to figure out where, exactly, the Port Authority’s money goes, there’s no question where a lot of it comes from: The Port Authority collects more than $1 billion in tolls each year.

In challenging the stiffness of those tolls, Weisshaus is entering somewhat uncharted legal territory. The Federal Aid Highway Act only says that tolls must be “just and reasonable” — without defining what, exactly, that means.

“The Federal Highway Administration has largely stayed out of the ‘just and reasonable’ question and the tolling agencies have not been tested well in courts,” says Jonathan Peters, a professor of finance at Staten Island University who studies the economic impact of tolls. “The usual test of the fairness of a toll is that the revenue generated is approximately equal to what it costs to operate the facility. That’s obviously not happening here.”

That’s the argument being made by the American Automobile Association, which saw the same Port Authority press release as everyone else — the one that said the toll hikes would help fund $25 billion in capital improvements, including the redevelopment of the World Trade Center. The AAA filed its lawsuit nine days after Weisshaus. Whether a federal judge will combine the suits remains to be seen.

The AAA challenged Port Authority tolls once before, in 1987. The Port Authority won that suit by lumping all its trans-Hudson travel together — the money-making bridges and tunnels along with the money-losing PATH, buses and ferries — and argued the financial winners were needed to subsidize the losers. After all, every PATH rider i s one less person in the Holland Tunnel.

“Under the precedent set by our previous lawsuit, toll revenues have to be dedicated to improving the integrated transportation network,” says Marta Genovese, vice president and general counsel for AAA-New York. “Tell us how a $1,000-a-square-foot office building is in the transportation network?”

The Port Authority said AAA’s lawsuit is “without merit.”

What the Port Authority has not said, at least not publicly, is what has been broadly speculated: That the rebuilding of the World Trade Center — which will eat up 50% of the agency’s $3.9 billion capital budget this year alone — has so injured the agency’s long-term financial outlook that Fitch threatened to downgrade its bond rating, which would add millions to the cost of its borrowing. To head that off, the Port Authority hastily decided to increase tolls.

“There was a lot of political, social and cultural pressure brought to bear to get the Port Authority to take over the World Trade Center project. They really got mouse-trapped into it, and now it’s gotten them into trouble,” says Martin E. Robins, the director emeritus of the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University and the Port Authority’s former head of planning and development.

“Everything about the speed of this toll increase was totally unprecedented in my 35 years of experience with the Port Authority, and it all had to do with the bond rating,” Robins says. “The Port Authority’s law department may not have gotten the time to craft this toll hike based on the principles of the [Federal Aid Highway Act] and it may come back to haunt them.”

Then again, the Port Authority may also be able to play a shell game and craft an argument that says bridge and tunnel tolls are paying for transportation projects while some of its other money makers — like the airports, which turned more than $500 million in profits last year — are underwriting the World Trade Center.

Yoel Weisshaus doesn’t particularly care. He just wants to visit his grandparents without bankrupting himself, like he did on a recent Wednesday morning. With $29 in his pocket, he bought five gallons of gas for $17. He wanted to get something to eat, but couldn’t — not when he had to save the remaining $12 for his toll. Two months ago, he would have at least had $4 to spare.

“I’m not going to give up,” Weisshaus says. “I’ll take it all the way to the Supreme Court if I have to.”

Let the Port Authority have its millions and billions. He just wants breakfast.

{NY Post/Matzav.com Newscenter}