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Legislative Probe Expands To Controversial ARC Tunnel Cancellation

Subpoena for documents relating to ARC and Port Authority toll hike adds policy focus to Bridgegate inquiry

New ARC Tunnel
Credit: WNYC

In a surprise development, the legislative committee investigating Bridgegate expanded its probe of alleged abuses of power by the Port Authority and the Christie administration to include Gov. Chris Christie’s controversial cancellation of the Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) rail tunnel in 2010, a fast-tracked 2011 Port Authority toll hike, and the governor's recommendations for patronage hires at the Port Authority.

For Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), the committee’s cochairs, the addition of the ARC Tunnel cancellation, the September 2011 Port Authority toll hike, and all records related to Christie’s recommendations for hiring at the Port Authority are in keeping with their pledge that the probe would widen to focus on systemic problems at the bistate agency.

The demand for information on ARC, the toll hike, and patronage hires was included in 19 subpoenas released yesterday by the Joint Select Committee on Investigations. These targeted the governor’s office and five of its staffers; the Port Authority and seven of its officials; and Christie’s reelection campaign. A subpoena was also issued to the New Jersey State Police Aviation Unit to see whether Christie flew over Fort Lee during the traffic jams caused by the George Washington Bridge lane closures.

The subpoena to the Christie reelection campaign sought any files, information, or communications with or relating to Fort Lee Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich, whose refusal to endorse Christie for reelection is believed to be the reason for the September 9-13 lane closures, dating back to last April.

But most of the subpoenas focus on Port Authority Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni’s November testimony before the Assembly Transportation Committee. At that time he insisted that the secret lane closures were a legitimate traffic study -- a position contradicted by fired Christie Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Kelly’s now-infamous “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email to David Wildstein, Baroni’s political lieutenant at the Port Authority.

The committee is clearly seeking information on whether Baroni’s testimony was part of a coverup and whether members of the Governor’s Office and other Port Authority officials were actively involved.

Included are subpoenas to Philip Kwon, the Port Authority’s deputy counsel who prepped Baroni for at least four days prior to his testimony; Regina Egea, the director of Christie’s Authorities Unit whom he has tapped as his new Chief of Staff; and Nicole P. Crifo, the senior counsel to the governor’s Authorities Unit. She may turn out to be the “Nicole” who watched Baroni’s testimony and thought he did well, as Wildstein reported in an email to Baroni later that day.

The subpoenas also demand logs of all calls and other communications prior to and following the September 9-12 George Washington Bridge access lane closures. The targets are exchanges between Egea, Crifo, Kelly, and 10 other governor’s office employees; Baroni, Wildstein, Kwon, and 14 other Port Authority officials and employees; and fired Christie campaign manager Bill Stepien and two other campaign officials.

But the biggest surprise in the 19 subpoenas announced yesterday was the demand for documents, emails, and other communications among Christie, Port Authority officials, the governor’s office, and state Treasury, Department of Transportation, and NJ Transit officials relating to Christie’s decision to forego $3 billion in federal funds and stop work on the largest public works project in the nation.

Christie’s October 7, 2010, cancellation of the ARC Tunnel made him a darling of conservative talk show hosts and set the stage for Republican governors elected the following month to cancel major rail transit projects in Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida.

But most important, cancellation of the ARC Tunnel freed up billions of dollars in Port Authority and New Jersey Turnpike Authority revenue that was used three months later by Christie to fund a five-year extension of the Transportation Trust Fund without raising the gas tax.

Wisniewski and the late U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), the state’s leading mass-transit advocates at the time, charged on the day Christie announced the cancellation that his real motivation in killing the rail tunnel was to “steal” billions of dollars to refuel the Transportation Trust Fund, which was scheduled to run out of money for new projects that budget year.

Now Wisniewski, who is co-chairing the Joint Select Committee on Investigation after leading the Assembly’s investigation of the Bridgegate scandal, will get the opportunity to prove his contention that Christie overstated the likely cost overruns on the project when he claimed that New Jersey taxpayers would be on the hook for $2 billion to $5 billion more than expected.

The subpoena demands “all data and records used to determine the cost overruns” cited in the October 7, 2010, memo from the ARC Steering Committee made up of Port Authority and New Jersey state transportation officials that Christie used as his basis to justify the cancellation. The subpoena, which is broadly worded, seeks all records and communications related to the ARC Tunnel beginning March 26, 2010 -- more than six months before Christie’s announcement.

Further, the subpoena’s demand for records from Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff, Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson, NJ Transit chief Jim Weinstein, and various Port Authority officials should show when the possibility of using Port Authority and other funds originally earmarked for the ARC Tunnel to pay for the Transportation Trust Fund was first discussed.

Ray LaHood, the former Republican congressman who was serving as President Obama’s transportation secretary at the time, charged that Christie set an unrealistic 30-day deadline for resolution of the dispute over potential cost overruns in cancelling a project that had been in the works since the 1990s.

While work had already started on the ARC Tunnel, including the digging of a gaping hole for the tunnel entrance in North Bergen, Christie’s decision means a new passenger rail tunnel to relieve overcrowding and increase nonstop rides for commuters to New York City is at least a decade away, if not more, the federal General Accounting Office reported.

The decision by the Joint Select Committee on Investigation to add critical transportation policy issues related to the Port Authority -- including the ARC Tunnel, the 2011 toll hike, and the patronage hires -- in its second round of subpoenas came as a surprise.

It was the subpoena power granted to Wisniewski’s Assembly Transportation Committee to investigate the 2011 toll hike that was expanded by the panel in December to call witnesses under oath to testify on Bridgegate, including Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye, whose testimony that there was no legitimate traffic study took the probe to a new level.

Subpoenas issued after that December hearing to Wildstein and other Port Authority officials produced the incriminating memo by Kelly that led Christie to fire her on January 9 and set off a national media firestorm that was subsequently stoked by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s charge that Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno transmitted a Christie threat to withhold Sandy aid if she did not push through a development represented by Port Authority Chairman David Samson’s law firm.

The failure of yesterday’s subpoenas to include any requests related to the Zimmer case make it clear that the legislative committee is leaving that issue to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The committee’s special counsel, Reid Schar, met with U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman to make sure that the Legislature’s investigation did not interfere with the federal probe, and received a green light to continue along the lines it has been following.

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