Fort Lee Emergency Delays Reported in Bridge Documents

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Vehicles slow for tolls before crossing the George Washington Bridge on Dec. 17, 2013 in Ft. Lee, New Jersey. Close

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Vehicles slow for tolls before crossing the George Washington Bridge on Dec. 17, 2013 in Ft. Lee, New Jersey.

Hours after New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s aides triggered a four-day traffic jam at the George Washington Bridge as political payback, officials in Fort Lee complained that two emergency responses had been delayed, according documents released yesterday.

The disclosure of damaging e-mails this week led Christie, a 51-year-old Republican, to fire a deputy chief of staff and cut ties with one of his top advisers. He apologized for the September lane closings that paralyzed Fort Lee, the New Jersey town that abuts the bridge to Manhattan. Officials of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the bridge, had said the closings were for a traffic study.

The hundreds of pages of documents include a portion of an e-mail on Sept. 9, the first day of the delays, from Robert Durando, general manager of the bridge, saying the “test” wasn’t working and that “Fort Lee is not happy.”

“We fielded 10 or so angry customers regarding there being only 1 toll lane available for Fort Lee and I had an unpleasant interaction with Fort Lee Police Chief and Asst Chief about congesting the Borough, and preventing the smooth flow of emergency response vehicles throughout the Borough,” Durando wrote. “Their characterization was that the ‘test’ was a monumental failure. Fort Lee is not happy.”

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New Jersey Governor Chris Christie during a news conference at the Statehouse in Trenton, New Jersey on on Jan. 9, 2014. Close

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New Jersey Governor Chris Christie during a news conference at the Statehouse in Trenton, New Jersey on on Jan. 9, 2014.

Federal Probe

The episode threatens Christie’s possible 2016 run for president and has set off a federal investigation. The Democratic-controlled state Assembly is subpoenaing documents and people to testify as the party uses the incident to paint Christie as a bully and question his credibility.

Among the documents released yesterday were revelations that a four-page, inconclusive traffic study was prepared during the test; Port Authority executives sought to delay Fort Lee police from obtaining video of it; and that many at the agency were unsure if the lane closures were temporary.

Tina Lado, director of government and community relations at the Port Authority, said in a written note to Christie’s top appointees at the agency that Fort Lee Administrator Peggy Thomas raised the issue about the delayed responses. That message is time-stamped 11:24 a.m. on Sept. 9. The test didn’t end until Sept. 12.

No Notice

“She mentioned that there were 2 incidents that Ft Lee PD and EMS had difficulty responding to; a missing child (later found) and a cardiac arrest,” Lado wrote. “She stated additionally that the Borough and PD had no advance notice of the planned change.”

The gridlock delayed crews responding to medical emergencies, including that of a 91-year-old woman who suffered cardiac arrest and later died.

Christie fired Bridget Anne Kelly, who he said lied when he asked senior aides a month ago whether they knew about lane closings ordered by David Wildstein, who was appointed by Christie to the Port Authority.

Wildstein resigned last month, along with Bill Baroni, Christie’s top executive appointee at the authority. Baroni and Wildstein were both addressed in Lado’s e-mail.

A New Jersey judge refused to block a subpoena by the Assembly for Wildstein to testify in Trenton before the legislative chamber’s transportation panel. At the committee hearing, Wildstein invoked his right to remain silent so as not to incriminate himself.

In Contempt

The panel ruled Wildstein in contempt. Its chairman, Assemblyman John Wisniewski, said the committee will subpoena more documents and seek to compel more testimony. Kelly will be among the next round of those subpoenaed, he said.

In an e-mail released this week, Kelly told Wildstein it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” where Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich hadn’t endorsed Christie. Wildstein replied: “Got it.”

From Sept. 9 to 12, a trip across the George Washington Bridge that typically lasted about 30 minutes stretched to four hours or more. On the fifth day, officials on the New York side re-opened lanes on what the Port Authority calls the busiest bridge in the world, a key link for U.S. East Coast traffic on Interstate 95.

Before the e-mails were made public, Christie had laughed off the incident. At one point, he responded to questions about the gridlock by saying he’d put traffic cones down himself.

On Jan. 9, Christie said he would never have joked about it if he’d known what people close to him had done. He traveled to Fort Lee to apologize to Sokolich and its residents.

“There’s no justification for that behavior,” he said, saying he’d been “stunned” and was “heartbroken.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Terrence Dopp in Trenton at tdopp@bloomberg.net; Mark Niquette in Columbus at mniquette@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at smerelman@bloomberg.net

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