WASHINGTON -- The George Washington Bridge connecting Manhattan to Fort Lee, N.J., is the busiest in the country. So it was no small matter when in September, two of the three access lanes to the bridge were shut down, creating significant traffic problems on the New Jersey side.
The shutdown was ordered by a political appointee of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Christie's administration said the closure was justified due to a traffic study, while Democrats questioned whether it was political retribution against the mayor of Fort Lee, who weeks before had refused to endorse Christie's reelection.
But on Monday, the top Port Authority official threw cold water on the Christie administration's claim, testifying at a state Assembly hearing that he didn't know about any traffic study. The Christie ally who ordered the closure, David Wildstein, resigned on Friday, reigniting questions about whether the traffic snarl created by the closure was all just political payback -- allegations that the Christie administration has dismissed as "crazy."
Christie brought Wildstein into his administration as a top Port Authority official in 2010. But the two go back much further. Wildstein, who founded the political website PolitickerNJ, and Christie were just a year apart in high school. A 2012 profile of Wildstein in The Record newspaper said figured "prominently" in Christie's effort to change the Port Authority.
"Longtime employees ... privately describe a man intent on carrying out a political agenda rather than one built on reform or improving the region's transportation system," wrote the paper.
Wildstein ordered the closures on Sunday, Sept. 8, according to The Wall Street Journal. The move created a "horror story" of traffic jams in Fort Lee the next day -- the first day of school in the borough -- with cars backed up into local streets. The access lanes reopened on Sept. 13, upon the orders of the Port Authority's executive director, Patrick Foye, an appointee of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D).
Fort Lee's Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, wrote on Sept. 12 to Christie's top appointee at the Port Authority, Bill Baroni, saying he believed Wildstein's actions were "punitive," although he has since backed off that accusation.
Just two weeks earlier, Sokolich had declined to endorse Christie's reelection bid.
In late November, Baroni told state lawmakers that a traffic study was the reason for the closures. He asked why so many lanes needed to be dedicated to Fort Lee traffic.
Several Democrats said at the time they were unhappy with his testimony
“While it was nice for him to come, his appearance was somewhat clownish,” Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D) told The Record. “He smirked through most of the hearing, changed the direction of the hearing as many times as possible to the point where he was asking the committee if we agreed with the policy call the Port Authority made.”
The Wall Street Journal reported that the closures were ordered without notifying police, emergency officials or officials on the New York side of the Port Authority's leadership.
Christie, meanwhile, has been going after Democrats for being "obsessed" with the issue, arguing that they were the ones playing politics.
Christie also defended Baroni's charge that Fort Lee perhaps had too many bridge lanes, telling reporters early this month, "We should look at this policy because I don’t know why one town gets three lanes. One lane maybe; three lanes?”
When asked if he had anything to do with the lane closures, he sarcastically replied, "I moved the cones, actually unbeknownst to everybody."
On Friday, just days before a legislative hearing on the closures, Wildstein announced that he will resign on Jan. 1 because the investigation had become a "distraction." He continues to collect his six-figure paycheck in the meantime. Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak called him “a tireless advocate for New Jersey’s interests at the Port Authority.”
Foye testified before a New Jersey state Assembly committee on Monday that he would have fired Wildstein, but did not have the authority. Other Port Authority officials said Wildstein directed them not to tell Foye about the bridge closures.
When asked if he knew about a traffic study, Foye replied, "I don't."
"I'm not aware of any traffic study," Foye said. "I don't know why it was done."
Christie's office has declined further comment after Monday's hearings, according to The Wall Street Journal, and his office did not immediately return a call to The Huffington Post. Democratic lawmakers are now calling for the firing of Baroni.
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