DALLAS -A U.S. Senator wants to know why the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in September unexpectedly closed four lanes of a bridge that connects New York City and New Jersey.
U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Committee on Science, Technology and Transportation, sent a letter Dec. 16 to the top officials of the Port Authority asking for answers to nine questions about the unannounced lane closures on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge over the Hudson River.
New Jersey Democrats contend that the lanes were closed without warning in retaliation for the refusal by Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, to endorse Republican Gov. Chris Christie in his successful re-election bid. The bridge's western landing is in Fort Lee.
Two top officials at the Port Authority said the closures were required by a traffic study on the bridge, but Executive Director Patrick Foye told a state legislative hearing that he knew nothing about a traffic study. Foye said the closure did not follow the Authority's protocol for notifying local police agencies before lanes are taken out of service.
"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," Rockefeller said. "The gravity of this situation demands a comprehensive investigation.
"It also exacerbates my concerns with the governance and previous oversight of the Port Authority."
In a separate letter, Rockefeller asked Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to use the Department of Transportation's oversight authority to review the closures "and provide an overview of the steps DOT can take, or the authority it needs, to prevent this type of incident from happening in the future."
The local access lane closures began Sept. 9 and lasted through Sept. 13.
Rockefeller said closing three of the four access lanes to the New Jersey side of the span created congestion in Fort Lee, N.J. that "caused four-hour commutes, brought traffic and commerce to a stop, and impaired the safe and efficient use of the transportation network in this region."
Curtailing access to one of the busiest bridges in the country should require significant planning and advance public warning, Rockefeller said. Failure to do so raises disturbing implications, he said.
"While this type of decision tends to be local in nature, I have serious concerns about the larger federal implications of what appears to be political appointees abusing their power to hamper interstate commerce and safety without public notice," Rockefeller said.
The bridge carries Interstate 95 across the Hudson.
Christie is widely expected to run for President in 2016. He denied knowing the name of the mayor of Fort Lee or ordering the lanes to be closed, and announced the resignations last week of the two Port Authority officials who cited the traffic study, Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni and David Wildstein, director of interstate capital projects.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey's $20.3 billion of outstanding debt is rated Aa3 by Moody's Investors Service and AA-minus by Standard & Poor's and Fitch.