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.

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.