Award–winning journalist Andrea Bernstein is Senior Editor for Politics & Policy for WNYC News. She has previously served as Metro Editor, Political Director, Director of Transportation Nation, and Senior Reporter.
When It Comes to Commuters, Chris Christie Has a Massive Blind Spot
Friday, January 10, 2014 - 03:26 PM
NEWS ANALYSIS Back in March, Governor Chris Christie's press office email-blasted a video press release. It showed the Governor chatting with an 8-year old named Audrey while simultaneous playing to the crowd at a town hall meeting. "What is your favorite thing to do as Governor?" the second grader asked. Christie gave a serious answer, having to do with making people's lives better. But then he gave the real one, what he called, "the fun answer."
"When you're governor, they close the Lincoln Tunnel for you. And you get to drive right through! No traffic! It's the best!"
Almost since taking office, Governor Christie has been on a collision course with commuters and people getting around his state--a group of people who comprise, essentially, everyone.
There was his decision to kill a New Jersey Transit tunnel under the Hudson River. The ARC Tunnel was funded and already under construction when Christie pulled the plug, arguing that the project could go over budget, potentially costing New Jersey taxpayers. "You can't fit a size ten foot in a size seven shoe," Christie said, explaining his decision.
Killing the largest public transit project in the nation, one that would have eased local commutes and improved Amtrak's capacity, did not sit well with then-U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood—who, like Christie, is a Republican. LaHood made several trips to Trenton to try and change Christie's mind, to no avail. Months after the decision, LaHood was still seething.
"In February 2010, Governor Christie sat in my office and expressed his full commitment to the completion of the ARC project," LaHood wrote to the late Senator Frank Lautenberg. "In March of 2010, when several news stories called Governor Christie’s commitment to the completion of the ARC project into question, I asked the Governor to restate that commitment in writing. He did so in a letter to me dated April 6, 2010.”
And then LaHood essentially called Christie a liar. “The possibility that this project’s cost could run [as high as $12 billion] was first shared with New Jersey Transit as far back as August 2008. Any notion that the potential for cost growth constituted new and emergent information when the Governor made his decision is simply not accurate.”
The decision to defund the tunnel—which meant New Jersey had to return $6 billion to the Port Authority and to the federal government—left NJ Transit rudderless, observers say. That lack of direction was pointed to after Sandy, when the agency parked its trains in the flood plain.
While the MTA was preparing for climate change and intense storms, NJ Transit was missing warnings and making errors. Officials stored trains during Sandy in the Meadowlands —leading to a loss of about a third of the fleet and costing $120 million dollars and months of frustrating commutes. Then, as now, Christie defended his team, while refusing to probe what they may have done wrong.
"I think these guys made the best judgment they could under the circumstances,” Christie said in January of last year. “Sometimes, people make wrong decisions. It happens. It's not a hanging offense."
When pressed on why he didn't check up more on the agency he runs—one with a half a billion in assets at stake—the governor, characteristically, made a joke. "If I’m making the decisions at that level of specificity, then I’d be under water myself,” Christie told New Jersey Public Radio.
He employed the same tone last month, when he responded to a question about the George Washington Bridge lane closures by telling NJPR reporter Matt Katz: "I worked the cones, actually, Matt. Unbeknownst to everybody I was actually the guy out there, in overalls and a hat. You cannot be serious with that question." Then the Governor winked at Matt, reminding him that he didn't have to deal with traffic when crossing the Hudson River.
It wasn't much better a month later, at a press conference where he announced the second of his staff resignations in the wake of the lane closures. This time it was Bill Baroni, Christie's top aide at the Port Authority. Christie insisted there had been a traffic study, despite sworn evidence to the contrary. Then he questioned why it had taken Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye, a Cuomo appointee, so long to notice. "If traffic was so awful -- no one brought it to his attention until the fifth day in."
Traffic was so bad, we now know, that children (of Democrats, as Christie's aides joked in emails released this week) were late for school and ambulance response time was longer, including help for a 91-year old woman in cardiac arrest. The emails show all this was happening as Christie's appointees in the Port Authority, in the Governor's office, and in his campaign, were literally chortling.
On Thursday, Christie apologized for "my failure as the governor of this state to understand the true nature of this problem sooner than I did.
Maybe that's because when he crosses the Hudson, there's no traffic.