Playing in Traffic – GW Bridge Toll “Gate”
How to conduct a Traffic Study
Listening to the 5 hours of riveting hearings on the Port Authority lane closings at the George Washington Bridge on Monday, I started having flashbacks to my first engineering related job.
I was a Traffic Enumerator. I literally counted cars at intersections with my elderly co-worker Sam. Often folks passing by would ask if we were selling lemonade or waiting for a parade. We looked like a kindly old gentleman and his granddaughter sitting in lawn chairs on the sidewalk. But we were off to the side, not interfering, and certainly not directing traffic. In my lap I held a square traffic counter that had buttons all around the sides. The modern digital ones look like this. When a car would pass through the intersection and make a particular movement – right turn, left turn or straight, I would press the appropriate button. Every 15 minutes I would read off the numbers to Sam and every hour we would take turns. We would also track pedestrians and cyclists.
In the office, I would file the copious accident reports that happened on county roads and that were used by the traffic engineers to improve safety around Bergen County. I knew all the types of traffic studies we would do. Curve Speed, Traffic Light Timing, you name it. I would often sit in the office after doing one of these studies to analyze the data for the traffic engineers.
Traffic studies were never undertaken by closing lanes just to see what would happen. That was never done. According to the testimony by Port Authority employees and the independent traffic expert on Monday, that appears to still be the case. Observation is the standard protocol. Not interference. Closing lanes for a traffic study is unnecessary and actually, quite insane. Which is why I have difficulty believing David Wildstein, Port Authority Director of Interstate Capital Projects who resigned Friday December 6, and Bill Baroni, Deputy Executive Director of the Port Authority, now being called on to step down, who say the Port Authority was conducting a traffic study, by summarily closing two Fort Lee entrance lanes to the George Washington Bridge in September.
Questions but Few Answers
Although State Legislators were asking questions from the Port Authority since September and getting very few answers, it took a Wall Street Journal article to break the ice and report that it was a political appointee who ordered the lane closures. Chris Christie appointee David Wildstein. Wildstein’s sudden resignation on December 6 before Monday’s hearing raised even more questions.
According to the Record, who obtained internal emails, those who knew about the lane closures before they happened, asked what would happen, and were told that there would be 4 hour traffic delays and 600 vehicle backups in Fort Lee. The incredible part is that after hearing that, they still said. “Let’s do it.” The appearance of a political motive arose because the result of the closures appeared to be what was foretold and according to Monday’s testimony, hidden from Borough officials purposely. And it continued for 4 days until Executive Director Patrick Foye, who also testfied on Monday, put a stop to it on Friday, September 13. A day that will probably appear unlucky from here on out to Governor Christie.
Although the personnel who were ordered to close the lanes by Mr. Wildstein testified that they were instructed not to tell anybody about the closures, including Executive Director Foye, and they were to let them continue indefinitely (perhaps until election day), he found out anyway and put a stop to the traffic nightmare immediately – raising questions as to a possible political motive behind the lane closings. The story has reached a national audience since Rachel Maddow has weighed in on Monday night.
NJ Traffic Laws Broken
As a licensed Municipal Engineer, I understand NJ state law pertaining to traffic. Although this was not discussed in the hearing, any closure longer than 48 hours MUST have the approval of the NJ Transportation Commissioner. That was NOT done. Also, anything that will impact county roads needs approval of the County Freeholder Board and anything affecting a state highway needs approval of the State Highway Commissioner. There are 29 lanes approaching the Bridge which include 2 Interstate Highways, I-95 and the Palisades Interstate Parkway, 2 Federal Highways, 1 and 9, Three State Highways, 4, 63, and 67, and two county roads, 56, and 505 in addition to the local approaches which handle traffic from Bergen County towns north and south – particularly from the Hudson River developments from Edgewater to Hoboken and Bergen County towns from Fort Lee to Alpine as well as New York State. The Bridge is a virtual commuter’s lifeline between Manhattan and Bergen County. The relevant statutes that appeared to have been broken were Title 39, Chapter 4-8c(6) and 4-197.1. This is not even discussing the notification of the media, the Municipality affected – Fort Lee, the Police Departments or emergency responders, let alone information signs put up for days leading up to traffic changes like lane closures. As the witnesses testified on Monday, lane closure plans often take years of planning.
Perils of Political Appointees
I am stunned that a highly placed appointee at the PA would appear to not have even a passing acquaintance with state law that deals with issues of traffic before issuing decrees on how the busiest bridge in the United States operates. The only conclusion that made any sense to the legislators in charge of the hearings, was that standard protocol was dispensed with because the person responsible for the closing the lanes was a former anonymous political blogger and editor at PolitickerNJ and high school chum of Governor Christie with no background in highway safety before being appointed to such a high position. The first moment this story came out – it seemed too fantastical to be true – that someone would inconvenience thousands of motorists in the New York/NJ area near the world’s busiest bridge, for political reasons. The fact that there appears no other rational explanation is chilling. As an engineer who took an oath to protect public health and safety, who used to work in Bergen County’s Traffic Department, I am appalled at what appears to have happened. It was literally criminal and put the public at risk. Laws put in place to protect the public were broken for no good reason by someone with no training.
Heckuva Job Baroni?
Listening to Transportation Chairman Wisniewski call for Deputy Executive Director Baroni’s resignation, I am reminded of what happened in New Orleans when a political appointee who only knew about fancy horses was put in charge of disaster relief during Hurricane Katrina. The most depressing aspect of this story is that it appears that Port Authority personnel were misused at the whim of Mr. Wildstein for reasons he has yet to honestly explain. Even more disturbing, is that his boss, Bill Baroni, another political appointee who knew about the closures ahead of time, did not concern himself with NJ state law regarding such serious matters and was flip in front of State legislators questioning the closures. That Mr. Baroni in previous testimony, sounded annoyed that Fort Lee has three local access lanes even though residents from all over North Jersey use them and that testimony on Monday that there are reams of existing data on who uses the bridge and how many, stated that 25% of the people who use the upper approaches of the Bridge use those local lanes, (3 of 12 toll lanes = 25% = exactly matched to daily flow), drained what little credibility Baroni had from the minds of Legislators. What is yet more disturbing still is that Governor Christie, who appointed both men, joked about it and dismissed the whole affair. It is also well known that Chris Christie is no fan of Democratic Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, whose district was heavily impacted by the closures while she was running for re-election. In addition, the Mayor of Fort Lee declined to endorse Governor Christie just two weeks before the lane closures and mere days before they were secretly planned.
More Investigation Needed
We need to know what actually happened. Many more questions were raised in Monday’s testimony. My experience working in the Bergen County traffic department and training as a municipal engineer tells me that Monday’s Port Authority employee testimony was accurate, which means Mr. Baroni’s testimony needs further scrutiny and Mr. Wildstein should get a subpoena. The GWB is the busiest bridge in the United States, not a political plaything. Matters of public safety regarding it should ONLY be left to trained adults who understand traffic is nothing to play in.