Port Authority official did not follow procedure for bridge closure

By David Tanner, Land Line associate editor | Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The official who ordered lane closures on the George Washington Bridge last September did not follow the proper procedures, documents show. It’s the latest development in a scandal that has led to resignations and firings within the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and in the office of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Documents published by the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation show that David Wildstein, then director of projects at the Port Authority, ordered the lane closures that occurred between Sept. 9 and Sept. 13, 2013, in Fort Lee, N.J. The George Washington Bridge connects Fort Lee with Manhattan, N.Y., and carries 275,000 vehicles per day. The four-day closure caused massive traffic jams and drew investigations from local, state and federal officials.

Wildstein and others claimed the closures were part of a traffic safety study.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., says if that were the case, the Port Authority would have notified the public and officials on both sides of the bridge of the intention to close the bridge.

“The Port Authority officials who ordered the September 9-13 George Washington Bridge lane closures did not follow their agency’s own procedures,” Rockefeller stated on the Commerce Committee website. “The Port Authority’s response provides zero evidence that the purpose of these closures was to conduct a legitimate traffic study.”

Rockefeller and others demanded answers in the aftermath of the closures. He published the answers he received from the Port Authority on his website.

“I am also disturbed by the evidence showing that the Port Authority’s professional and engineering staff raised serious concerns about the lane closure plan,” Rockefeller wrote. “They explained that the closures would cause significant congestion and delays, and would increase the risk of sideswipe crashes. It is unconscionable that anyone would block commercial traffic and risk the safety of thousands on our interstate highway system in this way.”

The Port Authority pinned most of the blame on Wildstein, who officials say acted to control information about the closures.

In response to a Rockefeller question, Port Authority officials say Wildstein first discussed the closures 12 days before their occurrence, but told his staff to keep quiet about it.

“Mr. Wildstein made it clear that he would control the communication about the toll lane closures. Mr. Wildstein failed to inform or brief the Executive Director,” Port Authority officials stated in the response signed by board secretary Karen Eastman.

Like Wildstein, then Executive Director Bill Baroni resigned his post during the aftermath.

Many have attempted to link the closures to Gov. Chris Christie, who denies he OK’d the closures to spite Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing the incumbent governor in the fall elections. Emails put a top Christie aide, Bridget Anne Kelly, in the middle of the action.

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote to Wildstein prior to the closures. Christie fired Kelly and then conducted a two-hour press conference in which he apologized but denied personal involvement.

Investigations into the matter are ongoing by legislative panels, by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and internally at the Port Authority.

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