Chris Christie’s Worst Traffic Outrage Didn’t Happen in Fort Lee

Whoever said that one death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic, has probably been hanging out in New Jersey.

Photo: Star-Ledger

It wasn’t long ago that Governor Chris Christie easily fended off flak from transit advocates for peremptorily cancelling a rail tunnel that could have relieved traffic congestion permanently for tens of thousands of daily cross-Hudson River travelers. Today he stands “humiliated,” and his political stature damaged, from his office’s ordering up a traffic jam that strangled several thousand people in hellish traffic in Fort Lee, NJ, over the course of four days last September.

This isn’t to downplay the agony — and lasting harm, in some cases — of commuters, schoolkids and emergency-service workers when Port Authority workers, following dictates from Christie cronies, shut down several George Washington Bridge entrance lanes and brought local traffic to a standstill for hours.

Rarely is the abuse of political power on such brazen display as it has been this week, since the Bergen Record published e-mails from inner-circle Christie aides that laid bare the venality of their scheme to pay back Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich with massive traffic jams for refusing to endorse the governor’s re-election.

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Christie’s deputy chief of staff told one of the governor’s Port Authority operatives. When the manufactured gridlock metastasized, like a latter-day Sorcerer’s Apprentice, into a full-blown nightmare, engulfing even schoolbuses carrying 8-year-olds, the operative texted that all was well since “they are the children of Buono voters,” alluding to Christie’s campaign opponent, State Senator Barbara Buono.

The mind reels, not only this writer’s but those of thousands of commenters to Wednesday’s New York Times story on the scandal. This comment from NYCmom, “recommended” by more than a thousand other commenters, is typical:

The closing of access lanes to the GWB for four days for political reason should be examined to the fullest extent and the involved parties need to be held accountable. Paralyzing Fort Lee and traffic for four days is an abuse of power. Governor Christie and his appointees do not “own” the bridge or the Port Authority and their actions show a clear lack of an understanding of their duties and responsibilities. (shortened due to length)

“Paralyzing Fort Lee and traffic for four days is an abuse of power.” And so it is. But was it not also an abuse of power for Christie to consign generations of commuters to paralyzing traffic by unilaterally cancelling the biggest bi-state transit project in generations, Access to the Region’s Core (a/k/a the ARC Tunnel), in October 2010?

Here’s how Regional Plan Association senior planner Juliette Michaelson summed up the damages to New Jersey and the region from Christie’s decision:

Yesterday, Governor Chris Christie put an enormous dent in New Jersey’s economic future. Access to the Region’s Core, a new tunnel to connect NJ Transit’s existing train network to a new terminal at Herald Square in Manhattan, would have enabled New Jersey’s prosperity for generations to come by doubling NJ Transit capacity into the region’s economic hub, significantly cutting train commute times to Midtown, increasing the reliability of service, reducing traffic and greenhouse gas emissions, creating construction and long-term jobs, driving economic growth in the right places, and boosting home values.

Were someone to calculate the respective economic costs, I’d bet that the overall harm from Christie’s cancelling the ARC Tunnel would top out at over four orders of magnitude (read: 10,000 times) greater than that from last fall’s Fort Lee follies. Yet the public outrage and political fallout have been many times less. That’s where that maxim about statistics comes in. When an individual injury is singular enough, when it’s visceral enough to feel and taste, its tragedy can trump that from millions.

Yes, Fort Lee’s gridlock was manufactured for naked political gain. But so was pulling the plug on ARC, a patently transparent ploy — if one were watching — that solved Christie’s big political dilemma in 2010: how to keep New Jersey’s gas tax the second lowest in the country without raising property or income taxes. Simple: we can re-allocate the saved ARC construction monies to the state’s Transportation Trust Fund.

Of course, it didn’t help that the ARC Tunnel was at least a half-dozen years from completion, and thus vulnerable to Machiavelli’s dictum that new ventures have only lukewarm supporters because humans have difficulty processing innovative change until it has happened. It’s also true that late 2010 represented a high-water mark in Tea Party fever, a climate in which belittling the seemingly high-minded visions of planning experts was a surefire way for blustering politicians to come off as regular Joes.

Whether Christie gets to tiptoe out of his new political jam is anybody’s guess. My takeaway is that livable streets advocates, having mostly mastered the statistics, need to do better at revealing the tragedies that lie beneath them.

  • qrt145

    I also thought about ARC when I read about this debacle. The Times framed the story yesterday as “Christie’s ‘brand’ of being the politician who tells the truth is in peril!”. I thought: what about all his lies when he stole the money from ARC to the detriment of future generations both in New Jersey and New York?

  • David Gurin

    This is a smart analysis, much more to the point than speculation on Christie’s presidential ambitions. As Komanoff points out, the real scandal is the long-term harm the governor did to New Jersey by his retrograde transportation policy.

  • niccolomachiavelli

    North Jersey is not his base, they probably hate gas taxes as much as the redneck south but they do value bus and rail connections to the city. No one will ever be able to corner Christie to take on the absurdity of his administrations transportation agenda.

  • Bolwerk

    Though everything stated above about economic damage is probably unassailably true, I think it just doesn’t add up to what news commentators (I hesitate to use the term “journalists”) and politicians perhaps correctly perceive: that is, the train doesn’t reduce gridlock one bit. Though the train draws plenty of users, few of them would have been drivers in the first place and the drivers who stop driving would be replaced by new drivers. Through it all, well-off but irrational people keep driving, not caring one bit about all the time they’re wasting for themselves as long as they don’t give Big Gubbermint more tolls.

    People who can’t afford to use cars to get to NYC, in an either a
    practical or economic sense, would have benefited from ARC. Many of these would be converts from buses or other trains, but many would be new riders. Either the
    train ride is just more convenient for them or they literally can’t afford the
    tolls and parking and gas put together, even if they otherwise drive.

  • Bolwerk

    He never had much of a penchant for telling the truth anyway. A lot of that can perhaps be blamed on ideological blinders more than character flaws, but still. I, for one, don’t even see the big deal here.* This was lousy, but every administration has its scandals. But did we learn something new? Did we just discover last week that Chris Christie is a thin-skinned oinker? Don’t think so.

    I used to say Rob Ford was the Chris Christie of Canada, but we know it’s the other way around!

    * The only reason it gets so much play is more people were inconvenienced than just voiceless poor people.

  • Joana

    well put

  • James Handley

    Thanks for tying Christie’s latest abuse of power to his earlier cancellation of the ARC rail tunnel. Gov. Christie seems to understand that transportation can make or break the quality of life for citizens, but instead of trying to improve the situation, his administration seems to be exacerbating it for political gain. Could this be more than a mean streak we’re seeing? Maybe it’s a world view of contempt for his opponents and for urban transportation.

  • Sproule Love

    That opening quote is commonly attributed to Stalin. I appreciate you taking us (voters/media/advocates) to task as well for not being more outraged about the ARC cancellation and generally near-sighted transportation policy in NJ. Difficult to say whose failing is easier to remedy.

  • dbowen345

    With all due sincere respect to the writer, some rail advocates in New Jersey supported the governor’s move (if still suspicious of his motivations) to kill the ever-more-flawed Access to the Region’s Core (ARC). Those advocates included, but were not limited to, the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) and the Lackawanna Coalition. NJ-ARP says this as the original grass-roots supporter of the ARC idea, which de-evolved over a decade into a very, very flawed project.

    NJ-ARP believes Amtrak’s successor proposal, Gateway, is a superior followup plan, in part because it encompasses the needs of New Jersey *travelers* and not just “commuters.”

  • at the end of the day, we can either make manhattan more or less hospitable for different transpo choices. christie’s killing of ARC was just dickishness, but once people get here (or when they are choosing how to get here) they make rational choices based on utility. we have to make certain things–public transport, clean (electric) transport, and human powered transport privileged to a TREMENDOUS extent over private gas cars. only then will any of this change, when person deciding whether or not to live in bergen co has to pause and say “you know what, it’ SUCKS having a car in manhattan but the bus is fast and easy to use.”

  • Titus Livius

    “Processing?” Not quite. My good friend Machiavelli wrote: “Nothing is more difficult than to introduce a new order. Because the
    innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old
    conditions and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.” circa 1532

  • Alex

    I’ve found this scandal to be more comparable to the NJ Transit/Sandy fiasco than to the cancellation of ARC. Christie’s appointee, James Weinstein, and arguably Christie himself severely bungled the handling of the storm when it came to NJ Transit. The flooded rolling stock resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars of damage and weeks of snarled train service, yet Christie has deflected any blame and stood behind Weinstein. But it seems people react much more strongly to intentional malice than to gross incompetence. With the ARC tunnel, he was able to snowball people into believing he was being “fiscally responsible”.

  • Dave

    Good article, thanks Charles!

  • Christie clearly owns the decision to cancel the ARC tunnel (as an element of long range planning) which as you say, is orders of magnitude more serious than a backfired political payback stunt that snarled traffic for a few days. But that is the problem with humans: they see the immediate problem, but cannot fathom the long term issues such as the ARC tunnel or climate change, for example.

    Whether Christie personally owned the Fort Lee debacle has me scratching my head. Is he so stupid as to earn the wrath of all those commuters? After all, this did not punish the Fort Lee mayor. It punished everyone having to deal with traffic in that part of the world (and I recall how much fun NYC/NJ/Long Island traffic used to be even on a good day). I have a hard time thinking he would risk this kind of blowback to give a mayor four days of heartburn, but its been a long time since I lived in NYC. Is the Gov that fickle? Is his staff that stupid?

  • Kevin Love

    Yes.

  • aslevin

    The plot thickens – there are some leads suggesting that the blockage was related in some as yet undiagnosed way to a $ billion mixed use real estate development with retail and housing.

    The development claims to be “walkable”, and it may be walkable with respect to internal trips. But commuting and regional retail is going to be mostly cars.

    The lack of rail alternatives makes it possible to blackmail the development’s financing by closing the onramp.

    http://talkingpointsmemo.com/cafe/is-a-billion-dollar-development-project-at-the-heart-of-bridgegate
    http://wirednewyork.com/forum/showthread.php?t=21913

  • The ARC decision may be much more harmful to NJ’s economy, but the bridge closure strikes at the heart of our democratic political system, whereas the ARC decision is actually just ordinary democracy at work, where the people’s desires (however irrational) are put into action by their elected officials.

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