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.
The federal government is now investigating the closures of two lanes leading on to the nation's busiest bridge by former appointees of Governor Chris Christie, a prominent national Republican who is eyeing a 2016 presidential bid.
Senator John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV, a West Virginia Democrat who chairs the U.S. Senate Science, Commerce, and Transportation Committee is asking the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to explain the unannounced closure in September 2013 of several lanes of the George Washington Bridge, which connects New Jersey and New York City. In a press release, Rockefeller said he was "alarmed by the agency's sudden action and its subsequent consequences on interstate commerce and safety."
The lanes were abruptly closed in September without telling the executive director of the Port Authority, Pat Foye, who is an appointee of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, also a Democrat. Foye called the closures "illegal," and said they could have caused fatalities by blocking emergency vehicles. In testimony in Trenton December 9, Port Authority officials in charge of the bridge were told the closures were made "at variance" with usual procedures and were deliberately hidden from both Foye and the Mayor of Fort Lee, where traffic backed up for a work week.
Democrats have charged the closures were made as political retribution against the Fort Lee mayor, who didn't endorse Christie for re-election.
As a bi-state agency, the Port Authority is subject to congressional oversight, and Rockefeller said oversight has traditionally fallen to his committee.
In a letter to Port Authority Board Chairman David Sampson, Rockefeller wrote: "Unwarranted lane closures with no public notice can have serious ramifications on interstate commerce and safety in the region, and as the Committee with oversight responsibility of the Port Authority, I continue to have serious concerns about the actions of this agency. The gravity of this situation demands a comprehensive investigation. It also exacerbates my concerns with the governance and previous oversight of the Port Authority."
Rockefeller also wrote to US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx Monday urging that the federal agency open its own inquiry into the Port Authority. (The letters appear at the end of this post.)
In a press conference on Friday announcing the resignation of Bill Baroni, the second of his appointees at the Port Authority to resign, Christie accused Democrats of politicizing the issue and said he fully expects national Democrats to make political hay of the closures. “National Democrats will make an issue of everything about me," he told reporters. "Get ready for the new world. We’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.”
The chair of the NJ Assembly Transportation Committee, John Wisniewski, has seven subpoenas already out to the Port Authority.