By Michael Aron
Chief Political Correspondent
Although they shook hands warmly before the hearing, John Wisniewski was genuinely surprised that Bill Baroni or anyone from the Port Authority showed up for this hearing. At issue is five days of major traffic delay in September caused by a study at the George Washington Bridge.
The political community was abuzz with speculation that Republican allies of Chris Christie at the Port Authority deliberately slowed down traffic as retaliation against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie’s reelection.
Baroni was here to argue that traffic study had a legitimate purpose. It seems that for years, three lanes out of 12 on the upper deck have been reserved for drivers entering from Fort Lee,
to the detriment of every other eastbound commuter.
“Every one of you on this committee has people in your communities who sit in longer traffic every day because of the special lanes for Fort Lee,” Baroni said.
Baroni apologized for poor communication to the public about the week-long delays and said it won’t happen again. But Democrats were frustrated by some of the answers they were getting.
“I think it’s really sad that an agency such as the Port Authority that has a budget larger than that of 26 U.S. states cannot be accountable to the New Jersey legislature,” Wisniewski said.
“You do a very good job for the Port Authority. … You are very practiced at obfuscating the issue,” said Assemblywoman Linda Stender.
Wisniewski tried to argue there are similar configurations at other Hudson River crossings.
The traffic study was to see whether funneling cars into one lane from Fort Lee instead of three would ease the morning rush. But it began on the first day of school in Fort Lee in the middle of a governor’s race.
“Why now? Why September? What transpired to have somebody say we ought look at having less lanes from Fort Lee?” asked Wisniewski.
What baffled some observers was that the committee never directly asked Baroni whether the traffic study was meant to punish the Fort Lee mayor for his non-endorsement.
When asked if he expected Baroni to say if the the decision was political, Wisniewski said, “I thought the better way to approach this was how could this happen? Who was responsible for this happening?”
He added at best it was clumsy, at worst, political mischief — but he and the committee still don’t know.