New Jerseyans may well shrug at politicians who consort with mobsters or take cash-stuffed envelopes. But heaven help those who hold up traffic.
While shifting a couple of lanes for a few days doesn’t sound like much, doing so at the George Washington Bridge toll plaza last fall was enough to cause epic traffic jams throughout the Bergen County town of Fort Lee, where tens of thousands of vehicles enter the bridge to Manhattan every day. The ensuing furor has brought about resignations, investigations, and, for Gov. Chris Christie, a situation.
The governor – who shares responsibility for the agency that runs the bridge, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey – recently attributed the controversy to his status as “a national figure.” If its trajectory persists, it could be his return ticket to Palookaville.
Records subpoenaed by a legislative committee and detailed by reporters Wednesday provide the most substantial evidence yet that the costly and potentially dangerous experiment with the world’s busiest bridge was designed to punish a local politician, Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich. They also show that it involved ranking Christie aides: In August, one of the governor’s deputy chiefs of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, wrote in an email to Port Authority executive David Wildstein: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” “Got it,” he replied.
A few weeks later, Wildstein ordered the lane changes without notifying Sokolich and other local officials, whose subsequent pleas for relief went unheeded. Wildstein even referred to the mayor derisively as “this little Serbian.” (He got that wrong, too: Sokolich is of Croatian descent.) The mischief was finally ended by New York’s top Port Authority official, who said the lane changes were hidden from him and probably illegal.
It’s not clear why Fort Lee’s mayor was being punished, but Sokolich himself has pointed to his failure to join other Democratic mayors in endorsing the Republican governor for re-election.
Christie and company have certainly failed to come up with another credible explanation. Though the governor has vigorously denied being involved, he at one point offered a puzzling peroration about the number of bridge lanes he believed to be unjustly “dedicated” to Fort Lee. Of course, as the misadventure at hand showed, the lanes are used by drivers from around the region, not just the town where the bridge happens to be located.
Meanwhile, Christie’s top executive at the Port Authority, Bill Baroni, resigned and lawyered up last month after an unpersuasive attempt to describe the debacle as a “traffic study.” He was joined by Wildstein, a high school classmate of Christie’s who was widely regarded as the governor’s point man at the authority. Wildstein is contesting a subpoena to testify before a legislative panel today, which would hardly be expected to improve matters for the administration.
All told, it’s been quite a U-turn for Christie’s chosen reformers of a behemoth transportation authority. Counting the agency’s much smaller but similarly troubled Delaware River counterpart, New Jersey can now claim a pair of port authorities beset by waste, incompetence and corruption. In at least one case, that’s not just despite the Christie administration; it’s because of it.