‘Time for some traffic problems’
Bridge scandal leads to resignations, firings and investigations

By David Tanner, associate editor

A scandal involving the busy and expensive George Washington Bridge has led to resignations within the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the firing of a top aide in the office of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

At press time, a state legislative panel was conducting hearings to help determine who ordered the sudden lane closures on the bridge in September 2013 and why.

Emails exchanged between a Port Authority official, David Wildstein, and Christie senior-level aide Bridget Anne Kelly indicate the closures were some sort of retaliation or punishment against the mayor of Fort Lee, N.J.

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly, who has since been fired, wrote to Wildstein on Aug. 13, 2013. Wildstein, who has since resigned, replied, “Got it.”

The lane closures lasted four days, from Sept. 9 through Sept. 13, when schools were back in session.

The ensuing traffic jams left thousands of commuters and truckers blindsided for four hours at a time.

Publicly, Port Authority officials cited a “traffic safety study” to justify the closures.

Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich told the press during the aftermath that he believed the traffic study to be a ruse. He accused Christie and the Port Authority of retaliating against him for his refusal to endorse the incumbent governor in the fall elections. He has since tempered the accusation, but still questions the lane closures.

Wildstein and an unknown source discussed Sokolich’s reaction in an exchange of text messages.

“Is it wrong that I’m smiling?” the unknown source texted to Wildstein, according to records obtained by the media and posted online.

On Sept. 13, the final day of the closures, an email exchange between Wildstein and Kelly lends credibility to the allegations of political retaliation.

“The New York side gave Fort Lee back all three lanes this morning. We are appropriately going nuts. Samson helping us retaliate,” Wildstein wrote, referring to Port Authority Commissioner David Samson, a Christie appointee. “What??” came the reply from Kelly.

Four days after the closures, the Fort Lee mayor demanded answers from then Port Authority Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni. Baroni has since resigned his post.

“We should talk. Someone needs to tell me that the recent traffic debacle was not punitive in nature. … Try as I may to dispel these rumors I am having a tough time,” Sokolich wrote.

Wildstein and Baroni may have resigned, but faced questions from a legislative panel in January. Wildstein invoked his constitutional right to not implicate himself.

The scandal caught the attention of U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and the United States Attorney’s Office.

The investigations are ongoing.

The double-decked George Washington Bridge is considered the world’s busiest vehicle bridge, carrying about 275,000 vehicles per day over the Hudson River between Fort Lee and Manhattan, N.Y.

Truckers know the bridge well because of the Port Authority’s steep toll increases in recent years. The port authority has raised tolls on five-axle vehicles each year since 2011. What was a $40 toll in 2011 is now $80.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office, at the request of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., says the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and other bi-state toll authorities should be more accountable to the public.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association agrees, and supports efforts in Congress to reinstate a federal “just and reasonable standard” for any toll increases proposed by bi-state toll authorities. The standard was once the norm, but was stripped away by the courts in the 1980s.

OOIDA hopes that lawmakers will reinstate the standard in the next multiyear highway bill due in Congress later this year. LL