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Port Authority Scandal Is Result of Leadership, Patronage Mess, Analysts Say

Mark J. Magyar | December 16, 2013

Transportation experts warned of dangers of growing cronyism, gubernatorial interference months before rogue lane closings in Fort Lee

george washington bridge

The Bridge-gate scandal that forced the resignations of two of Gov. Chris Christie’s Port Authority appointees was the inevitable result of divided leadership, growing patronage, and increased gubernatorial meddling in the operations of the multibillion-dollar New York-New Jersey agency, transportation experts said yesterday.

In fact, Jameson W. Doig, who wrote the definitive history of the Port Authority, warned almost two years ago of the dangers inherent in the growing “politicization” of the bistate agency. He also cautioned against the transformation of its 12 commissioners into “obedient assistants to the governors, passively accepting patronage appointments and whatever actions fit a governor's short-term political needs.”

Doig said yesterday he was not surprised by the growing scandal that has enveloped the Port Authority, the mega-agency that oversees airports, bridges, tunnels, ports, the PATH light-rail system, and the World Trade Center in New York and New Jersey.

The scandal has already forced the resignations of Christie’s top two operatives at the Port Authority -- Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni and Interstate Projects Director David Wildstein. It has sparked a series of subpoenas and legislative hearings, and has been seized on by Democrats nationally to attack Christie, the GOP frontrunner for president in 2016.

Wildstein, a high school friend of Christie, created traffic havoc in Fort Lee for four days in September by closing two dedicated lanes heading into the George Washington Bridge for a phantom “traffic study.” He also ordered his subordinates not to inform the Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye, who is an appointee of New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, or Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich.

Sokolich, a Democrat who had refused GOP requests to endorse the Republican Christie for reelection a few weeks earlier, wrote to Port Authority officials at the time that he believed the lane closures were “punitive,” but has declined to discuss the issue since then.

“I have been consistent in saying I have no comment,” Sokolich said last night. “I am still concerned about my community, and I am watching the results of the fact-finding investigation closely. For now, I have no comment.”

David J. Gallagher, president of the Port Authority Retirees Association, and Martin E. Robins, director emeritus of the Alan J. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University’s Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, joined Doig in criticizing Wildstein’s lane closures as unprecedented. They consider the episode to be symptomatic of the way patronage appointees answer to the interests of the governors who appoint them, rather than the transportation needs of the region as a whole.

“This is a colossal misdeed, a clear case of malfeasance in office, and an unprecedented abuse of power by David Wildstein and Bill Baroni at least,” said Robins, who asserted that such an action would have been unthinkable when he served as an executive at the Port Authority from 1983 to 1987. “People who worked at the Port Authority must be agog that anyone would do this. Clearly, it was a rogue act by a rogue employee, but he obviously knew he could get away with it.”

Gallagher, who retired as assistant director of tunnels, bridges and terminals – “the very group that is under investigation today” -- said he had never heard in 33 years at the Port Authority or in his subsequent retirement of “tunnel or bridge lanes being closed for construction, rehabilitation, or any other purpose without well-orchestrated advance notice to newspapers, affected municipalities and police departments, and the commuter themselves.”

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