Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Chris Christie's GW Bridge-Gate Scandal Heats Up

East-bound traffic on the George Washington Bridge
Want a picture of the culture of vindictive low-ball New Jersey state politics at its worst?

Look no further than the growing GW Bridge-Gate scandal that's already starting to tarnish some of the polish off NJ governor Chris Christie's presidential ambitions.

The saga began back in early September two months before the November 5th New Jersey Gubernatorial elections when Mark Sokolich, the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, refused to endorse Republican Christie for governor.

According to a Rutgers-Eagleton poll taken between September 3rd and September 9th, Christie's lead over his challenger, former NJ state senate majority leader Barbara Buono, had shrunk to 55% to 35% (with 8% undecided and 1% undeclared) even though he went on to win the election in a landslide.

In response to the snuff by the Fort Lee mayor, David Wildstein the director of interstate capital projects for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, ordered engineers to close some of the access lanes to the George Washington Bridge between September 9th and the 13th with NO prior notice to motorists, state officials and even local police and EMT personnel in Fort Lee; according to the Bergen Record he even told a bridge worker NOT to say anything.

Not only was Wildstein a high school classmate of Christie's, he was appointed to his $150,000 a year job by Christie as well and the lane closures led to massive traffic delays that garnered national media attention when they clogged the city of Fort Lee for days.

For those not familiar with the greater NYC area, a quick traffic lesson. The city of Fort Lee sits on the eastern edge of New Jersey just across the Hudson River from the west side of New York City. The western side of the GW Bridge (THE busiest bridge in the WORLD) is in Fort Lee and it connects New Jersey to upper Manhattan.
If you look at the photo above, the crowded lanes on the right are the east-bound lanes of the upper deck of the GW heading into Manhattan. Those drivers are trying to get to Route 9A, which takes traffic south along the Hudson Parkway down to the West Side Highway of Manhattan to go into New York City. Or, they may be trying to go north on 9A to get up to the Bronx, Yankee Stadium or Yonkers.

Or they're trying to get to I-87 or I-95 north which takes you up to New England, or Westchester, NY - or they may be trying to go further east over Manhattan to get to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (the BQE) to get to Brooklyn or Queens; or get to the Long Island Expressway (the LIE) to get out to Long Island or the Hamptons.

On a nice Friday afternoon in the summer it can take you HOURS to get from the NJ Turnpike (I-95 north) through Fort Lee to merge into the lanes to then get into that traffic pictured above. It IS the busiest vehicular bridge crossing on the planet.

My point is not a traffic lecture, it's to illustrate the scope of the arrogance and petty vindictiveness of David Wildstein and possibly Bill Baroni too; another Christie appointee who is a top executive of the Port Authority of NY and NJ - the sprawling public-private agency that oversees the tunnels, bridges, rail roads and ports that connect NY and NJ.

To punish the mayor of Fort Lee, Wildstein intentionally shut off access lanes for all that traffic to merge onto the GW. When the public started demanding answers, Baroni claimed the lane closures were for a "traffic study". But no such study existed and what's now becoming clear is that top Christie appointees snarled traffic for hundreds of thousands of motorists for days so they could make a political point.     

Using a vast piece of vital infrastructure like that for such a petty reason has already led Wildstein to announce his resignation last week in an effort to try and deflect heat from Christie. Hearings on the matter held by the NJ State Legislature began on Monday and top officials including the executive director of the Port Authority Patrick Foye testified.

If you're at all interested in national politics, there was an excellent discussion/summary of Bridge-Gate this morning on the Brian Lehrer Show with reporter Sarah Gonzalez, who's been all over this story from the start and gave a concise and eye-opening overview of some of the testimony from the hearings. You can listen to it online.

Shawn Boburg from The Record wrote an excellent piece today which is a must-read if you want more sordid details from this growing scandal.

Up to now Christie has tried to brush this off and the Port Authority Chairman David Samson has been silent on the issue as well; but nor for long. This is the kind of thing which can nullify someone's presidential ambitions and the Democratic party is already bringing the national spotlight onto this issue.

Part of Christie's appeal as a GOP presidential candidate has been his no-nonsense approach and often brusque manner, but more and more it's looking like that's the very thing that led to this debacle. Christie can't escape that fact that he appointed Bill Baroni to the Port Authority - and Baroni appointed Wildstein.

If the result of the ongoing hearings by the Transportation Committee of the NJ State Legislature and an upcoming internal investigation by the Port Authority reveal that Christie or anyone associated with the governor's office ordered the lane closures as retribution against the mayor of Fort Lee; then Christie's presidential ambitions may be short lived indeed.

A no-nonsense politician may have appeal as a possible presidential candidate. But a politician who will engage in the petty kind of political nonsense that leads to motorists from the largest media market in the world on the busiest bridge in the world to be inconvenienced and delayed for days because of a personal grudge?

The George Washington Bridge is an awfully big weight to carry around with you. That's the kind of scarlet letter you just can't carry into the national media spotlight of the 2016 presidential race.  

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