Tolled Bridge

by Nicole Gelinas
Why Christie’s failure matters far west of the Hudson.

If New Jersey governor Chris Christie keeps his job and overcomes the current scandal to mount a 2016 presidential bid, two solid reasons will exist for GOP primary voters to remember Bridgegate as more than a traffic jam.

First, helping to oversee the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a public authority controlled jointly by the governors of the two states, is the closest a New Jersey governor gets to trying out for the president’s ultimate responsibility: keeping the public safe from harm.

The Port Authority’s approximately 6,800 employees have grave public-safety responsibilities. They help the drivers and passengers of 116 million cars, trucks, and buses move across and through the George Washington Bridge, the Lincoln Tunnel, the Holland Tunnel, and smaller bridges every year. They move 73 million people annually on cross-Hudson subway lines between New Jersey and Manhattan. And they make sure that 109 million people from all over the world take off and land each year at JFK, Newark, and LaGuardia airports.

That so many men and women trust their lives and their children’s lives to this government authority — and they do, every time they board a 747 and hope to land safely, or drive over a bridge that they expect won’t collapse — is a small miracle.

But the public’s trust doesn’t happen by itself. Workers — from runway inspectors to train drivers — keep things working reliably and safely. They do so by following rules, regulations, and a chain of command built up over decades.

Most important: A culture of safety must prevail — and it must come from the top. Last month, New York saw what happened when that culture of safety broke down at a unit of another public authority, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. After months of warning signals that something was wrong at the MTA’s Metro-North commuter railroad, a train derailed, killing four passengers.

Christie’s job in making appointments to the Port Authority was to name people whom he trusted to care about keeping other people alive — and that meant respecting a culture of safety and a chain of command.

As Pat Foye, the executive director of the Port Authority and an appointee of New York governor Andrew Cuomo, noted when he found out after the fact about these appointees’ freelance efforts: “I’m appalled by the lack of process” in “reversing 25 years of [Port Authority bridge] operations rules” as well as, “most of all[,] by the dangers created to the public interest.”

Indeed, two of Christie’s point men at the Port Authority — deputy executive director Bill Baroni, a Christie appointee, and David Wildstein, a Baroni pick who spoke often with the governor’s deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly — didn’t only fail in their duty to protect life and limb. They didn’t spend their days merely doing nothing or making up work, as patronage employees often do. They worked hard to purposely and callously put people in danger — and subverted the chain of command to do so.

Consider the e-mails that investigators have released as they look into Bridgegate. As we all know by now, Kelly, in August, directed Wildstein to cause traffic problems for Fort Lee, N.J., as political retaliation after Fort Lee’s mayor, Mark Sokolich, didn’t endorse Christie for reelection. Starting on September 9, Wildstein and Baroni used their posts at the Port Authority to reduce the town’s access points to the bridge from three lanes, including lanes with automated toll collection, to one particularly slow cash-only lane.

In their defense, Wildstein and Baroni may be really stupid — and may not have understood beforehand that clogging up traffic is dangerous, largely because ambulances, fire trucks, and police cars can’t get through.

Even so, though, if Wildstein and Baroni didn’t entirely grasp this fact ahead of time, they knew of the risk a day into the experiment. Another Port Authority official informed both men that there were “two incidents” that local police and emergency workers “had difficulty responding to; a missing child (later found) and a cardiac arrest.” The response? More of the same.

In mid-week, Mayor Sokolich left a message for Baroni — one that Baroni’s staff related as “an urgent matter of public safety.” Baroni’s response, as related by Wildstein to Kelly: “radio silence.” After trying to reach him by phone, Sokolich sent Baroni a letter, pleading that “our emergency service vehicles are experiencing tremendous response time delays. Unquestionably, this decision has negatively impacted public safety.”

Here was a mayor desperately trying to reach public servants to rectify a perilous situation. The people Christie had chosen to trust with other people’s lives unanimously reacted with chilling indifference.

And what did an even higher-placed Christie appointee, Port Authority chairman David Samson, have to say when — at minimum — presented with evidence of mass sociopathic behavior on the part of his fellow Christie loyalists? Samson was upset that Foye, Cuomo’s top man at the authority, was attempting to undo the damage and level with the public. Foye is “playing in traffic, made a big mistake,” Samson penned.

The second problem for Christie is that Bridgegate imperils his biggest accomplishment as governor: changing the national conversation on public-sector workforce reform. Christie was one of the first governors of either party, after 2008, to take seriously the issue of ballooning public-sector pension and health-care benefits. He also embraced an older issue, merit pay for good teachers.

The obvious point to make here is that Christie’s top men at the Port Authority weren’t so interested in cutting public-sector costs when higher costs benefited them. As the manager of the George Washington Bridge, Robert Durando, noted internally, closing automated toll lanes in favor of a manned lane “has the potential to be very expensive and labor intensive.” Durando noted that extra “toll-collector costs” would be $600,000 annually. “There are also additional, as yet undetermined police costs.” Union leaders can now say that Christie’s administration wanted to cut their pensions — but didn’t mind spending tollpayer money on a dose of political revenge.

The more devastating argument, though, is subtler. Union leaders often say that public workers need to organize themselves so that they can fight fairly against managers and political appointees whose motives are not exactly better governance. Bridgegate shows why such fear remains justified in the 21st century. Durando, a management employee, has already testified that he didn’t push back against the strange directive to close off bridge access because he was afraid for his job.

Now Christie’s top staff have given the public good reason to assume that the people who are worried about out-of-control costs at public-sector unions also have contempt for public-sector workers. For that’s what Christie’s handpicked people showed for the longtime Port Authority staffers who were just trying to do their jobs: utter contempt. That keeping a bridge or an airport in safe working condition actually takes work never occurred to them.

At his press conference on Thursday, Christie spent a lot of time talking about himself and how sad he was. Many other people have good reason to be sad, too.

— Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. @nicolegelinas on Twitter.