Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
Fort Lee is one of New Jersey's most dangerous driving spots. Why hasn't the governor done more there?
Way before media across the United States were analyzing the nuances of traffic patterns leading to the George Washington Bridge, John Cichowski, who writes the "Road Warrior" column for The Record of northern New Jersey, noticed something funny.
He poked into the strange traffic jams that plagued Fort Lee last September, and was among the first to ask a question that has clouded Governor Chris Christie's high flying political ambitions: "Why would the Port [Authority of New York and New Jersey] purposely quadruple commuting time for some of the people who live closest to one of the nation's busiest bridges?"
In the months since Cichowski posed that million-dollar query, theories have abounded, although hard answers have been elusive so far. Christie himself said during an epic January 9 press conference that the original explanation — some kind of traffic study was being conducted — might still turn out to be true.
Over the weekend, Cichowski used his column to ask another tough question: why doesn't anyone seem to care about the very real and life-threatening traffic problems in Fort Lee and northern New Jersey, the ones that weren't manufactured for some unknown political purpose? Why isn't the state studying those?
Cichowski points out that Fort Lee and the country in which it is located, Bergen, are one of the state's hotspots for traffic fatalities and injuries:
A total of 21 pedestrians were killed in Bergen last year — more than in any other county and more than double the 2012 count of nine. Partly because it attracts bicyclists from the George Washington Bridge, Fort Lee accounted for 76 biking and walking injuries in 2013 — eight more than in 2012, said Sgt. Ricky Mirkovic, supervisor of the borough traffic safety bureau….
"Most happened on the streets around the bridge," Mirkovic said on Friday.
According to Cichowski, gridlock and dangerous traffic is a major concern for Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, who has emerged as one of the potential political targets of the bridge closure. He writes:
In a 2010 letter, Sokolich asked the [Port Authority’s Bill] Baroni for help in easing persistent gridlock. In response, the Port Authority withdrew a plan to cut back on weekend toll lanes.
"Since then, we tried almost everything to improve traffic safety," the mayor said on Friday.
He enlisted decoy cops to catch drivers and pedestrians who violate crosswalk laws, solar-powered lights to brighten streets, additional crossing guards, grants for pedestrian countdown clocks at traffic lights, and a plan to install a sophisticated traffic-light timing system once a residential-commercial development is completed.
The mayor and police department pursued an aggressive sting operation targeting dangerous drivers last spring, despite the anger caused by $230 tickets for motorists who didn't yield to pedestrians in crosswalks.
But when Port Authority officials and members of the Christie administration decided it was "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," the safety of pedestrians, bikers, and drivers doesn't seem to have occurred to them. That cavalier attitude, Cichowski suggests, might have something the do with the governor's less-than-sterling driving habits:
He accumulated 25 points over three decades, including 13 moving violations for speeding, improper turns, unsafe driving and failing to wear a seat belt. Unlisted in the formal record, though well documented, is a 2002 case in which the governor — then the U.S. attorney — talked his way out of a ticket for driving the wrong way on a one-way street in Elizabeth after running into a motorcyclist.…
Christie rarely takes the lead on traffic safety, an issue that at least drew some public support from predecessors who attended pro-seat-belt and anti-drunken driving events that the incumbent now avoids. Instead, he eliminated vehicle safety inspections, tried to kill highway safety patrols to aid stranded motorists, and vetoed a road safety initiative that would have given parents tools to better train their teens.
Publicly, the governor has sloughed off road safety, as he did when he initially called the Fort Lee scandal "no big deal," and joked that he personally placed the cones at bridge entrances. Sometimes he shrugs, as he did in 2012 when questioned about a 110-mph state police-led caravan of Porsches and Lamborghinis on state toll roads: "What are you going to do?" he said of the offending cops. "People are human beings. They make mistakes."
The governor, suggests Cichowski, has made it clear by example that bad behavior on the roads and streets of New Jersey is just another human foible. In that kind of atmosphere, perhaps it's no surprise that the closing of a couple of traffic lanes — leading to gridlock, frustrated drivers, and blocked emergency vehicles — could be seen as a mere prank.
"Didn't the people who ordered the closures know what had been going on in Fort Lee for the last few years?" Cichowski quotes one Fort Lee resident as asking. That man's brother died after being hit by a car when walking to his church in Fort Lee last year.
The answer is yes, they did know. But for the Christie administration, traffic problems are apparently "no big deal." Unless, that is, they become political problems.
Top image: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie at a press conference about the ongoing recovery from Hurricane Sandy in Manahawkin, New Jersey. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)