Chief official believed NJ lane closings illegal
- Article by: ANGELA DELLI SANTI
- Associated Press
- January 11, 2014 - 2:10 AM
TRENTON, N.J. — The September lane closings near the George Washington Bridge that caused huge traffic jams and now appear to have been politically orchestrated by a member of Gov. Chris Christie's administration and key allies violated federal law, a chief official said in an email ordering the lanes reopened.
The Sept. 13 email was among thousands of pages released Friday by a New Jersey legislative committee investigating the scandal, which could haunt Christie's expected run for president in 2016. The documents mostly involve the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the agency that runs the bridge.
The documents show the traffic mess created tension between New York and New Jersey appointees at the Port Authority, with the New York side angrily countermanding the lane closings after repeated questions from the media over the closings went unanswered.
"I believe this hasty and ill-advised decision violates federal law," Patrick Foye, authority executive director, said in the email. An appointee of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Foye called the decision to close the lanes "abusive" and ordered them reopened.
Bill Baroni, a Christie-appointed deputy director for the authority who has since resigned, forwarded a copy of the email to Christie's scheduling secretary.
Later that morning, Baroni emailed Foye: "I am on my way to office to discuss. There can be no public discourse."
Foye responded: "Bill that's precisely the problem: there has been no public discourse on this."
Baroni later authorized a statement for reporters explaining that the closings were part of a traffic study.
Lawmakers are looking into allegations that Christie loyalists engineered the tie-ups to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie for re-election. Christie has denied any involvement in the lane closings, and two batches of documents released on Wednesday and Friday do not implicate him.
Christie moved Thursday to contain the damage from the scandal, firing his deputy chief of staff, cutting ties to one of his chief political advisers and apologizing for the traffic jams. Besides Baroni, Christie appointee David Wildstein resigned last month from the Port Authority as the scandal unfolded.
In recent weeks, questions have been raised about whether the closings were part of a legitimate study. Christie himself said Thursday: "I don't know whether this was a traffic study that then morphed into a political vendetta or a political vendetta that morphed into a traffic study."
The newly released documents show there was, in fact, a traffic study that was done, or at least a preliminary one. Two versions turned up in the documents — one was six pages and the other 16. Both were dated Sept. 12, the day before the lanes reopened.
The documents include study findings that Baroni gave to lawmakers at a hearing last year: When the lanes were closed, the main bridge traffic moved a bit faster, but local traffic had major delays.
Michael Cassidy, a University of California-Berkeley engineering professor who occasionally works with the California Department of Transportation, told The Associated Press that the preliminary study appears to be a legitimate internal report of the sort transportation officials often circulate among themselves.
"It could well be a good-faith effort, if not the finest in the annals. I cannot say this is not a study," he said. "You wouldn't want to publish it in an academic journal."
The documents also contain several emails from Port Authority media relations staff to higher-ups reporting on calls from reporters with questions about the closings. The agency did not respond to those calls.
In the correspondence, Port Authority chairman David Samson, a Christie appointee, suggested that Foye had leaked to a reporter an internal memo ordering an end to the lane closings. Samson called that possibility "very unfortunate for NY/NJ relations."
In an Oct. 9 email exchange under the subject "morning clips," Philippe Danielides, a senior adviser at the Port Authority, asked Wildstein: "Has any thought been given to writing an op-ed or providing a statement about the GWB study? Or is the plan just to hunker down and grit our way through it?"
"Yes and yes," Wildstein replied.
In a Sept. 17 email, Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak appears to send Wildstein a response to be sent to a reporter writing about the lane closings. "Traffic studies or pilots are done all the time," he wrote. "They're temporary, and if they're not done, how can the effectiveness of a new approach be tested?"
The documents also showed confusion from some Port Authority employees as the closings were starting.
One employee asked, "What is driving this?" Another responded that he was wondering the same thing: "It seems like we are punishing all for the sake of a few."
And another employee passed along a complaint from a woman who said that her husband, who had been out of work for more than a year, was 40 minutes late for a job interview because of the tie-ups.
One Port Authority police officer went searching for answers.
"The undersigned inquired if this is a permanent plan or temporary," Capt. Darcy Licorish wrote in an email recounting her meeting with the bridge manager. "The manager could not supply an answer to that or other questions. Inquiry was also made as to the notifications of the township. No answers could be supplied."
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