QuickTake Q&A: A 2013 Traffic Jam That Still Dogs Chris Christie

The abuse-of-power scandal known as Bridgegate started with orange traffic cones. For four consecutive mornings in September 2013, cones were rearranged on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge, reducing to one from three the lanes reserved for vehicles from the closest town, Fort Lee. The bridge is the world’s busiest, connecting New Jersey with New York City’s Manhattan Island. The resulting gridlock still dogs New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a leading booster of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

1. Why were the lanes shifted?

The initial explanation was a traffic study. In fact, the shift was ordered, and the resulting mess privately celebrated, by Christie allies who, according to prosecutors, were seeking retribution against Fort Lee’s mayor for not backing Christie’s re-election.

2. Who was involved?

David Wildstein, who worked at the agency that owns and operates the bridge, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, has admitted playing a role. He said Bridget Kelly, who was Christie’s deputy chief of staff, and Bill Baroni, a Christie appointee at the Port Authority, also were involved. A month before the lane change, Kelly e-mailed Wildstein, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” 

3. Who’s been charged?

Wildstein pleaded guilty to conspiracy. David Samson, a Christie appointee who was chairman of the Port Authority at the time, pleaded guilty to a federal corruption charge in a separate case that stemmed from the bridge investigation. Kelly and Baroni face charges including conspiracy, wire fraud and civil-rights violations.

4. Did Christie have a role?

That’s the big question. Wildstein’s lawyer has said, without elaborating, that evidence shows Christie knew about the bridge bottleneck while it was happening. Christie says he had no inkling until afterward. An inquiry commissioned by Christie’s administration said he “knew nothing about it.” An investigation by the Democratic-controlled New Jersey Legislature said Christie’s possible role was hard to pin down.

5. What’s next?

Kelly and Baroni face a joint trial Sept. 12. Wildstein won’t be sentenced until after he testifies as a prosecution witness. Samson’s sentencing has been scheduled for Oct. 20. His lawyer declined to say whether Samson will cooperate with prosecutors.

6. What’s the fallout?

Bridgegate loomed over Christie’s unsuccessful campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. His popularity in New Jersey has plunged to historic lows, with polls showing that fewer than three in 10 residents approve of the job he’s doing. With his term ending in January 2018, Christie could find political rebirth in a Trump administration, even if it’s not as vice president.

The Reference Shelf

  • A Bloomberg article on what else is wrong with the agency that runs the bridge.
  • A Bloomberg article on Christie’s withdrawal from the presidential campaign.
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