This may turn into much more than just a political scandal.
On Sept. 9, 2013, access lanes to the George Washington Bridge from New Jersey to New York were suddenly closed. No warning was given — nothing posted days before or announced on the radio
|Chris Christie: Did he demand the lane closures of the George Washington Bridge?|
It may have seemed like a teenage prank at the time, but the blockage of bridge traffic as a possible act of partisan political revenge has put New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in the middle of a serious legal stew.
And the fire underneath it is just beginning to heat up for the Republican presidential hopeful, as the state assembly plans to post online 907 pages of documents related to the case Friday.
The New Jersey governor has asserted that he had nothing to do with the totally capricious lane closings. As for his aides who instigated the mayhem, they insisted they were not — as alleged — getting even with the mayor of Fort Lee, the Democrat Mark Sokolich, who had failed to endorse the Republican Christie’s reelection, as some 60 other Democratic officials had prudently done. They said the lane closings — which lasted four days — were imposed to conduct a traffic study that, oddly enough, no one knows anything about and, furthermore, cannot find. It might prove that if you close lanes, traffic will back up.
The bridge is run by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The governors of both states make the necessary appointments. Inside the authority, Christie’s guys were widely viewed as his political operatives. One of them was David Wildstein, the governor’s friend since high school and former mayor of their home town of Livingston, N.J . The governor parked Wildstein at the authority at $150,000 per year and apparently gave him a year’s supply of traffic cones.
Another Christie friend and political ally, Bill Baroni, was also placed at the authority. He is a former state senator and was given a salary of $290,000. In the wake of the lane closings, both he and Wildstein have resigned, apparently hoping to end the matter. But New Jersey Democrats, a creative bunch, have come to call the affair “Bridgegate” and, armed with subpoena power in the legislature, are determined — for strictly good-government reasons — to get to the bottom of this.
But what about the economic effects of the incident?
Economists have been studying the cost of traffic for years, and one of the most definitive looks comes from Texas A&M’s Transportation Institute. Each year, the institute releases its “Urban Mobility Report,” which gauges the economic effects of congestion on the American economy. The group found that the average commuter wastes 38 hours in traffic each year, and that this costs the economy $818 per commuter in wasted time and fuel. That means a wasted hour in traffic costs roughly $22.
A few more data points:
- · According to INRIX, a traffic information and services group, commuters in the New York metropolitan area spend on average 34.5 minutes getting to work each day.
- · The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey says 102 million vehicles per year cross the George Washington Bridge, which comes to 279,000 vehicles per day. Assuming half of those are traveling from New Jersey into New York, that means 139,500 vehicles were caught in Christie’s traffic jam per day. Multiply that by the four days traffic was slowed and you have a total of 558,000 affected vehicles.
- · Anecdotal evidence says that workers spent anywhere from 2 to 4 times as much time commuting to work each day than they did without the lane closures.
- · Therefore we can estimate that commuters spend 320,850 hours going from New Jersey to New York over the bridge during a normal four-day stretch. If we assume the traffic jam doubled that time, the total cost of the jam would be $7 million. If we assume that it quadrupled commuters time on the road it could have cost as much as $21 million!
Obviously this is just a rough, back-of-the envelope estimate of costs, but given that 1) traffic problems in Ft. Lee due to lane closures likely affected more drivers than those crossing the bridge, and 2) the median salary of workers in the New York metropolitan area is 19% higher than the country overall, this calculation could be an underestimate.