New Jersey Governor Chris Christie withstood critics when he killed a $12.4 billion transit tunnel under the Hudson River to New York City. Now, on the verge of his second term, he’s at the center of another commuter fury over four days of traffic tie-ups at the George Washington Bridge, the world’s busiest.
The Republican governor’s opponents in New Jersey as well as in Washington are trying to build a case that unannounced lane closures were orchestrated to punish a community whose Democratic mayor failed to endorse the re-election of Christie, a possible 2016 presidential contender.
Christie, 51, hasn’t explained the reasons for the four-hour delays that brought traffic to a standstill in Fort Lee. Bill Baroni, the governor’s top appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the bridge, resigned yesterday. David Wildstein, a Christie choice who ordered the closures, left earlier. State Assembly Democrats have subpoenaed seven officials for questioning.
“This is part of putting yourself out there to run for president in the 21st century,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University in Lawrenceville.
The Democratic National Committee jumped on the bridge issue, saying earlier this week in a statement that the governor owes New Jerseyans answers. Christie said he expects to remain a source of criticism by the opposing party.
“National Democrats are going to make an issue about everything with me -- get used to it,” he told reporters yesterday in Trenton.
Mark Sokolich, the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, the New Jersey borough at the western end of the bridge, protested the lane closures in a Sept. 12 letter to Baroni, a former Republican state senator. The mayor wasn’t among Democrats who broke party ranks to endorse Christie for re-election.
“We are reaching the conclusion that there are punitive overtones associated with this initiative,” Sokolich wrote in the letter, marked “ personal,” obtained under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act. “What other conclusion could we possibly reach?”
The mayor asked Baroni to reverse the action “quietly, uneventfully and without political fanfare.” Baroni didn’t respond to a request for comment in a telephone message and a text sent to his mobile phone.
Christie said he’d planned to replace Baroni even before Democrats started asking about the order to close the bridge lanes.
The unannounced shutdowns turned typical half-hour delays into four hours. The bridge, opened in 1931, is the world’s busiest, carrying 102 million vehicles a year, according to the Port Authority’s website.
Christie told reporters yesterday that the closures were a “mistake,” and said Baroni’s departure was “the appropriate thing to do, given all the distractions that have been going on.”
Christie said he had nothing to do with the orders. Baroni, named to the post by Christie in 2010, will be replaced by Deborah Gramiccioni, his deputy chief of staff for policy. Wildstein, who ordered the closures and is a former high school friend of Christie’s, is no longer at the agency, the governor told reporters yesterday.
The governor said a Wall Street Journal report that he telephoned New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to complain that Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye, a Cuomo appointee, was asking too many questions about the incident is “categorically wrong.”
The transportation committee of the Democratic-controlled New Jersey Assembly, which held hearings on the lane closures, subpoenaed seven more individuals on Dec. 12 to answer questions.
“This was no ordinary traffic jam,” said Wendy Pollack, a spokeswoman for the New York-based Regional Plan Association, a nonpartisan urban planning group that influences regional transportation policy in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
“People understand that work hours are crowded,” Pollack said by telephone. “They don’t understand that public roadways can be blocked for no reason. There might have been an extraordinary abuse of power.”
On Dec. 2, Christie joked with reporters in Trenton that he personally manipulated the bridge’s flow with traffic cones. Then he attacked two Democratic lawmakers -- Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg from Teaneck, who represents Fort Lee, and Assemblyman John Wisniewski from Sayreville, chairman of the transportation committee -- as “obsessed with” the jams.
Weinberg said she didn’t believe Christie personally ordered the jam.
“I initially described this as a couple of frat boys sitting in their office, having a couple of beers and saying, ’I have an idea!’” Weinberg said in an interview Dec. 12.
Wisniewski didn’t respond to a request for comment placed through a spokesman, Tom Hester Jr. Sokolich, the mayor, didn’t return a telephone call to his municipal office for comment, and a phone message left with the Port Authority’s media office drew no response.
Christie in 2010 drew criticism for canceling a commuter-rail tunnel beneath the Hudson to New York. The project, known as Access to the Region’s Core, was estimated by the Federal Transit Administration to cost as much as $12.4 billion, with New Jersey paying 14 percent.
The governor said he killed the project because New Jersey would be exposed to cost overruns -- a decision criticized by the late U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat, as “one of the biggest public-policy blunders in New Jersey history.”
“The ARC tunnel was Christie’s judgment call and he was within his purview of his responsibility,” said Brigid Harrison, a politics professor at New Jersey’s Montclair State University. “That’s different from somebody randomly exercising authority, an abuse of authority, and people take exception to that.”
Christie said the bridge-traffic story was the sort to “become sensationalized.”
“The easiest thing to say is, ‘They’re out of control,’” said Christie, referring to the Port Authority. “I don’t sense that they’re out of control. Does that mean they are mistake-free? No. This is a huge governmental entity with a budget bigger than some state budgets. There are going to be mistakes made.”