Emails suggest safety warnings about closed bridge lanes ignored

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Emails released Friday by an investigative panel of the New Jersey Legislature suggest Port Authority officials ignored repeated complaints and safety concerns from local residents and officials about traffic jams created by the September lane closures on the George Washington Bridge.

Correspondence between George Washington Bridge Director Robert Durando and other Port Authority officials indicate there were early and urgent warnings from Fort Lee officials about the safety risks to closing the lanes last year, which led to massive gridlock in the borough.

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On Sept. 9, the first day the lanes were closed, Fort Lee Borough Administrator Peggy Thomas emailed Tina Lado, the Port Authority’s director of government and community relations, to inform her that the Fort Lee police department and EMS had trouble responding to calls concerning a missing child, who was later found, and a cardiac arrest.

Thomas also said police and emergency departments weren’t given advance notice of the closures.

Democrats have said the lanes were closed as an act of political retribution against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, who did not endorse New Jersey Gov. Christie (R) in his 2013 reelection.

Christie on Thursday fired his deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly, telling reporters that she had lied to him about the lane closings and that he knew nothing about them. Emails released on Wednesday suggested Kelly gave the go-ahead to Port Authority official David Wildstein to close the lanes on the bridge.

Wildstein and his superior at the Port Authority, Bill Baroni, resigned in December as scrutiny of the lane closures intensified.

The new emails released on Friday highlight Wildstein’s role in the affair.

Lado passed concerns about public safety to Wildstein and Baroni, who were both Christie appointees, as well as Cedrick Fulton, the Port Authority’s director of tunnels, bridges and terminals. The public documents do not show a response from the Port Authority officials.

Another email from Durando to Fulton indicates the Fort Lee police chief planned to call Baroni to discuss his “grave concern” about the potential public safety risks created by the closures.

“Specifically, traffic conditions required Ft Lee officers to remain out on corners, managing traffic instead of attending to public safety issues. He also expressed grave concern about the inability of emergency response vehicles, ambulance, FLFD (Fort Lee Fire Department) to traverse the borough while responding to emergencies,” Durando writes. 

The emails also show Wildstein directing Durando to continue the study each day, despite mounting complaints.

Complaints in the emails go beyond public safety, and show how the serious traffic delays interrupted people’s lives.

On the first day of the closures alone, Durando told Fulton that they received about half a dozen calls complaining about the closures. 

One area resident said the traffic caused by the closures caused her husband to arrive 40 minutes late to a job he had only just landed after more than a year of unemployment.

The Port Authority “doesn’t care about their customers and they are playing God with people’s jobs,” the resident said, according to a Sept. 9 email from Lisa Hererra, senior business manager in the department that oversees bridges and tunnels, to Durando. 

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