It’s beginning to look like the investigation by the New Jersey state legislature into Bridgegate may end up going far, far beyond the mere issue of closing lanes in Fort Lee. They’re expanding to pry open a window on the vast patronage machine and cash cow that Governor Chris Christie has used since taking office in 2010: the New York and New Jersey Port Authority.
They’ll also look into the circumstances of Christie’s highly controversial decision in 2010 to cancel what was then the biggest public works project in the United States, a light rail tunnel under the Hudson River, and to use some of the funds from that project to pay for pet projects in the state.
The PA runs much more than a few bridges and tunnels. It controls an empire of real estate: the New York area airports, the gigantic New York and Newark, Elizabeth and Bayonne container port operation, the underground PATH transit system, and much more. Back in the day, and once again, it also owns the World Trade Center. The PA had operating revenues of $4 billion in 2012 and controls assets worth $37 billion.
Since 2010, Christie has installed dozens of cronies and favored operatives, including very high-level Christie insiders: David Samson, a real estate attorney, as chairman; Bill Baroni, now fired, a long-time Christie ally who was the PA’s deputy executive director; Philip Kwon, another key Christie ally is the agency’s deputy general counsel; and, of course, David Wildstein, Christie’s non-friend from Livingston High School, who was “director of interstate capital projects,” whatever that is.
Thanks to Bridgegate, most of those names are now well known not only in New Jersey but nationwide. What’s less well known is how Christie has used the PA to build his political machine, using its power to curry favor with a wide range of Democratic mayors, county officials and party bosses. In towns such as Hoboken, Harrison and many others, the PA is involved in or controls important development initiatives and transportation projects that are often entangled with cronies of the New Jersey governor and his friends.
The New Jersey legislature, whose first round of subpoenas was focused on documents and the people most immediately involved in the George Washington Bridge scandal, is now getting into explosive political territory: the PA itself, and how Christie has showered his friends and allies with political patronage jobs at the Port Authority and funneled its billions of dollars in revenues in ways designed to buy and control political loyalties. As detailed in the subpoena, the legislators want to know who was offered a job at the Port Authority by the governor, what were the exact job descriptions, how were they posted and advertised.
One critically important part of the inquiry will be examine the connection between a massive increase in tolls on the Lincoln Tunnel, the Holland Tunnel, the George Washington Bridge and other crossings in 2011 and the cancellation of the already-under-construction, mostly federally funded new tunnel project.
The committee’s subpoena demands extensive data on how the toll hike was decided and how the resulting money was used. They also want to know how Christie determined that the $8.7 billion tunnel project, which had been in the planning stages for decades, would suffer from massive cost overruns and so had to be suddenly cancelled. And the legislators are investigating how and why the Port Authority expanded into the South Jersey turf of an important Democratic political machine boss, to provide help to the beleaguered Atlantic City airport.