There’s a saying in my family that goes something like this:
“Did you make it through Hartford by 3:30?”
The question is rhetorical. It would be an insult to the pride of many of my family members, veterans of long distance road trips and daily commutes in some of the worst traffic in the world, to even insinuate that we somehow failed to reach Route 84 in time to avoid 3-hours of “Google-Red” traffic jams. The saying is instead used to denote large-scale failure. I’ll give you an example from my youth.
Parent: So you got a B on your progress report.
Offspring: Yeah, well the class was really hard.
Parent: Did you make it through Hartford by 3:30?
Offspring: *feels intense shame*
The point is we take traffic seriously.
Enter the Republican Governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie. He’s a straight-talking, no-holds-barred, bipartisan leader. He brought the shore back from Hurricane Sandy and he just won re-election by a landslide thanks, in part, to the many Democratic endorsements he received from mayors around that state. His name is whispered in Republican circles as “the man who could beat Hillary,” a title he relishes, although unofficially. The punishment for crossing Christie? I’ll give you a hint. It’s worse than death itself, and death itself was late this morning due to a traffic jam on the Cross-Bronx.
They called in the Port Authority.
I’ll back up.
In September of 2013, a town called Fort Lee, NJ was turned into a parking lot for four days on account of a “traffic study” on the George Washington Bridge, one of the many crossings that connect New Jersey and Manhattan. It was rumored at the time that the “traffic study” was in fact political retribution, and act of revenge brought about by the Mayor of Fort Lee’s refusal to endorse Christie during his re-election campaign.
It turns out the rumors were true.
Two of Governor Christie’s peripheral aids took it upon themselves to make Fort Lee, NJ the sixth circle of traffic hell. They ordered the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to close two important on-ramps for the George Washington Bridge under the pretense of a “traffic study”, delaying school buses and stressing the capabilities of Fort Lee’s emergency response system in the process. When the truth finally came out, the entire state went into hysterics. This coming from a state that collectively shrugged off a bribing/organ smuggling ring that implicated three mayors and five rabbis with a “yeah, but how ’bout them Mets!”
The message was clear: Take our kidneys? Meh. Mess with our traffic? There is no where on Earth where you will be safe.
Thankfully the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal reported the story in a way that makes it absolutely clear they’ve understood the broader importance of the issue. And by that I mean of course they’ve done the exact opposite, in that they have mostly been asking what people in New Hampshire might think of Governor Christie’s leadership capabilities. Not because people from New Hampshire have anything valuable to say, but because they happen to hold the first primary in the 2016 presidential race.
What they have collectively missed (although the NYT is beginning to come around) is that a professional planning institution was just used as a political torture device.
Do you remember how you and your best friend would have to negotiate for a sleep-over in middle school? First you had to agree on who’s house it would be at. Then you had to carefully broach the subject with your parents who would negotiate for what seemed like years while they told you to “go play in the park”. You had to promise your parents that you would be in bed by 9:00pm and that you wouldn’t eat too much junk food and even then, after all that work, if Aunt Betty’s 50th birthday was tomorrow you were out of luck and the plan was cancelled.
Now imagine that you own a transportation system that serves roughly the population of Brazil every year and your friend owns the tallest building in the United States. Now also imagine that your parents were thrown out of office for extortion and cronyism involving a gay love affair with an aide, and that your friend’s parents got fired for frequenting the services of high-class call girls.
That’s the Port Authority.
Its a system where the Mayor of New York City has to cooperate with various mayors in North Jersey, only to see their best plans get sidelined because the Governor of New York double booked you with the Lake Eerie Farm Association and the Governor of New Jersey was arrested for fraud. If it seems like a stupid system, that’s because it is. It is also specifically designed to be that way.
Planning boards like the Port Authority, or the Boston Redevelopment Authority for that matter, are professional organizations that are meant to be somewhat aloof from the politics of urban governance, although not so aloof as to be indifferent to the needs of the communities they serve. Its a tricky balance, and one need look no further than Boston’s West End to see the consequences of getting the balance wrong. For the last few decades, however, the planning boards have been better at finding that balance and their legitimacy as an institution depends on their professional ability to do so. The Port Authority has seen its share of political infighting but its immense power has never been used to consolidate the political power of one person.
That two peripheral aides in one part of the political structure would even think to cross that line is bad news indeed. They did this while referring to Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich as “that Serbian” (he’s of distant Croatian decent) and the late-for-school children of Fort Lee as “Buono supporters” (as in Christie’s opponent in his campaign for governor). It speaks to the kind of people that are now allowed access to one of the most powerful institutions in the United States.
It’s enough to make you ask if they’ve made it through Hartford by 3:30. Their shame demands a review of the Port Authority’s ability to be immune from such behavior going further.