Friday, December 13, 2013

Heads Roll at Port Authority Over GWB Traffic Jam

The Port Authority is a bistate agency that handles interstate transit projects between New York and New Jersey. Its top officials are nominated by the governors of New York and New Jersey. Back in September, David Wildstein headed up a supposed traffic study that limited local traffic from entering the George Washington Bridge to a single toll lane. That compared to three toll lanes previously.

The "study" lasted several days, before it was put to an end. The fallout from the traffic jam that left Fort Lee's downtown paralyzed for hours each day and threatened public safety to the point that fire engines, police cars, and ambulances were stuck with no way to get to their destinations. There was no good response from the Port Authority as it stonewalled at every opportunity. It then took the state legislature to subpoena officials to begin to get to the bottom of the story.

Those involved in setting this up instructed anyone involved not to tell anyone outside the agency, because it would have serious fallout. They were right, of course, but not in the way they thought.

The fallout from the study continues today, with Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey firing Bill Baroni, the Executive Director of the Port Authority. Christie's trying to frame this as a routine move, even as acknowledging that the traffic moves were improperly done and that one thing has nothing to do with the other:
Christie’s appointees say the lane closures were part of a traffic study, but they have admitted they did not follow normal protocol for conducting such a study.

The Republican governor today agreed that the lane closures – which jammed the town’s traffic for hours each morning -- were not conducted properly.

“When mistakes are made, people have to be held accountable for them,” said Christie.

Critics have suggested the lane closures were a political move by Christie’s appointees after the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee chose not to endorse Christie during the gubernatorial election.

Christie dismissed those allegations as “a whole lot of hullabaloo” and insisted that Baroni’s resignation is not a result of the controversy. He said Baroni, who has worked at the Port Authority for four years, was already planning to resign.

“Four years at the Port Authority as [deputy executive director] is enough for anybody,” Christie said. The governor said he has not directly spoken with Baroni recently.

Baroni, a former state senator, did not attend the news conference, and he did not respond to a request for comment.

In his place, Christie is appointing Deb Gramiccioni, his deputy chief of staff for policy and planning. Gramiccioni has a reputation for stamping out wasteful government spending and going after public corruption.

It certainly appears that the decision was politically motivated to go after Fort Lee. The hearings so far have indicated that there was no plan for how to address the closure, no warning to commuters, and that the effect of the study could have been done with a computer simulation, avoiding the problem altogether.

No one specifically said it was politically motivated, but the reading between the lines is highly suggestive.

The alternative is that there was gross incompetence.

That Christie canned Baroni today, and accepted the resignation of David Wildstein effective end of the year, also shows that this was politically motivated. Christie's trying to limit the political fallout.

The Port Authority is a den of political appointees by design - NY and NJ both designate appointees, so people who are politically connected are chosen for top spots - and the positions are essentially evenly split between NY and NJ appointees.

The surprising thing is that Christie canned Baroni today, but had no problem keeping on NJ Transit's James Weinstein, whose rail team put the rail fleet in a position to be flooded out during Sandy costing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage, reduced the rail schedule for months, and no one was fired - there was one person who was demoted, but that was a minor underling.

By his own logic, he should have held Weinstein accountable for the NJ Transit rail debacle. But he hasn't and wont.

No comments: