WASHINGTON -- New documents reveal that a high-ranking official in the administration of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) knew that Fort Lee, N.J., had issues with traffic congestion around the George Washington Bridge, long before he authorized a seemingly unnecessary study that closed down lanes to the bridge and made traffic even worse.
Fort Lee is an essential access point to New York City, serving as the gateway to the George Washington Bridge, which is the busiest bridge in the United States. In November 2010, Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich (D) wrote to Bill Baroni, deputy director of the Port Authority of New York and Jersey, and complained of traffic problems in the borough. The letter was obtained by The Record in a public records request.
"On approximately 20 occasions in the last forty days, our Borough has been completely gridlocked," wrote Sokolich to Baroni, who was Christie's top official at the Port Authority. "Traveling from the south to the north end of our Borough takes upwards of one hour. Our safety vehicles are unable to traverse our own thoroughfares to attend to emergencies which place our residents in harms way."
Despite these concerns, on Sept. 9, 2013, Sokolich woke up to find that two of the three local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge had been closed, causing dangerous traffic jams in the borough on the first day of school. Neither he nor Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye -- who was appointed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) -- were given any advance warning.
The closures were ordered by David Wildstein, then the director of interstate capital projects and an ally of Christie's. They came just weeks after Sokolich refused to endorse Christie's reelection bid. On Sept. 12, Sokolich said he believed the closures were "punitive," although he later backed off that accusation.
Baroni has stated that the closures were part of a traffic study, implying that Fort Lee may not need three access lanes.
"Every one of you, every one of you on this committee has people in your communities who sit in longer traffic every day because of the special lanes for Fort Lee," Baroni said in November.
But he acknowledged that no one ever sought approval for the study, which, without an alternative route, was guaranteed to create traffic congestion.
According to The Record, a bridge official said Wildstein also specifically instructed him to keep the lane closures secret from Fort Lee officials. And records indicate, according to the paper, "that traffic engineers predicted it would lead to 600-vehicle back-ups during the morning rush hour that would not subside until noon."
Wildstein and Baroni have since resigned and hired attorneys to represent them.
In a Dec. 17 press conference on the controversy, Christie stood by Baroni's explanation for the closures, saying that while his appointees did not go through the proper channels for the closures, there was no malicious or political intent in what they did.
Still, the controversy has continued to dog Christie, who is considered a possible 2016 presidential contender. Sen. John "Jay" Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, has asked the Transportation Department to review what happened in Fort Lee.
"While this type of decision tends to be local in nature, I am concerned about the larger federal implications of what appears to be political appointees abusing their power to hamper interstate commerce and safety without public notice," wrote Rockefeller in his letter to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
The inspector general of the Port Authority is also investigating the closures, and several state legislators continue to look into the matter.