NJ Democrats: Christie Crony Shut Bridge Lanes as Retribution

Monday, 09 Dec 2013 09:14 PM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is laughing off Democrats' accusations that he was behind closures that plugged lanes of traffic on the George Washington Bridge in September, but state Democratic lawmakers aren't finding the situation very funny.

On Sept. 9-13, commuters found themselves stuck in traffic at the bridge when David Wildstein, director of interstate capital projects for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, ordered access lanes closed without prior notice, The New York Times reports.

For several years, three of the 12 eastbound toll booths heading into New York from New Jersey on the bridge have been set aside for morning rush-hour traffic. But during a traffic study, those lanes were cut to one and the other two lanes were dedicated to regular traffic.

While Wildstein said he ordered the closings as part of the traffic study, Democrats have been complaining loudly that he ordered them because Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich would not join other New Jersey mayors in endorsing Christie for re-election.

Further, the traffic study's results haven't been produced, another bone of contention for Democrats who want an investigation into the incident.

Wildstein resigned his position last Friday, effective Jan. 1, under pressure from Democrats who are demanding answers behind the closing and his connections to the governor.

Wildstein, a former mayor of Livingston, N.J., went to high school with Christie. In addition, he was hired to his Port Authority position by the agency's deputy executive director, Bill Baroni, a Christie appointee, who told a panel of lawmakers in November that Wildstein had ordered the lane closings.

Wildstein said the whole lane closing issue had become "a distraction," but Christie shrugged off the accusations with a joke and denied any connection.

"I worked the cones. Unbeknownst to anyone, I was working the cones," Christie joked during a Statehouse news conference, reports The Star-Ledger in Newark.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, has subpoenaed Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye to testify about the September lane closures, and state Sen. Richard Codey, D-Essex, wants an investigation from the agency's inspector general. State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, also is demanding answers.

Christie also shrugged off their demands, telling The Star-Ledger that "just because John Wisniewski and Loretta Weinberg are obsessed with this . . . it just shows you they really have nothing to do."

But Weinberg responded that Christie should be just as concerned as she is, especially because the Port Authority hasn't been able to produce the traffic study in question.

"If there was a traffic study, produce it," Weinberg said. "Where's the traffic study? Who authorized it, and why didn't they follow the PA processes? It's a simple question. Why are they stonewalling?"

Engineers knew the lane closures would jam traffic leaving Fort Lee and heading onto the bridge, reports The Record, a northern New Jersey publication. Emails showed they predicted the shutdowns would create 600-vehicle-long lines on Fort Lee's roads that would not clear until noon on weekdays.

Cedrick Fulton, the agency's director of tunnels, bridges and terminals, said Monday that the study was a change from protocol, as normally traffic studies are planned for more than a year and start with his team.

However, planning came from the agency's top engineers, who monitored the effect on traffic, Fulton said.

"This was an unusual request," Fulton said Monday. "It wasn't typical at all."

The emails revealed Monday also didn't show whether engineers in the agency thought the shutdowns would be wise, and didn't show why Fort Lee officials or the public were not notified in advance.

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