Poorly executed toll lane reallocation trial at Geo Washington Bridge escalates - two top execs of PANYNJ are out in political furore

December 17, 2013
By Peter Samuel

A poorly managed trial to reallocate toll lanes at the George Washington bridge has escalated into a huge political furore and the resignation of two top Port Authority of New York-New Jersey (PANYNJ) executives. Friday, the resignation of the port authority’s second ranking deputy executive director, William Baroni, was announced by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie amidst accusations of political payback, and a flurry of subpoenas and legislative hearings. A deputy of Baroni, David Weinstein, director  of interstate projects, resigned earlier.

The whole sorry affair began, we’re told, as a routine move to allocate scarce toll lane capacity better at the main upper level toll plaza and improve flow through the toll plaza and improve travel times.

With three lanes in a local entry ramp and motorists in the left lane tending to generate turbulence in much larger flows of traffic from the NJ Turnpike and I-80. Abrupt geometrics at the entry are a legacy from the days when all vehicles stopped fully to pay the toll and there were slow but orderly queues. Nowadays a large proportion of motorists are equipped with E-ZPass electronic toll transponders and they expect to roll through the tolls at 25mph or more, making the uncontrolled merge of three lanes a hazard. So in the morning peak hours it became normal practice to use cones to make all three right hand toll lanes exclusive to local traffic.

There was no need for sometimes hazardous merges.

But greater safety was bought at the expense of reducing the options for mainline traffic  - putting some seven travel lanes of mainline traffic through nine toll lanes, many manual. Often in peak hours the Fort Lee traffic didn’t seem to need the three dedicated lanes of the before-configuration.

Hence the idea of a trial with fewer lanes dedicated to the entering traffic from Fort Lee.  It was just a matter of placing the line of cones differently - to get the slow local traffic to merge into a single lane at the toll plaza.

It was then the trial went badly wrong.  Too much was tried too quickly. Squeezing three Fort Lee lanes into two might have worked, the extra lane helping the mainline significantly without damaging Fort Lee drivers much.

But going straight to a single lane from the normal three for Fort Lee traffic was too much. Not only was there a two-thirds reduction in lanes, but Fort Lee drivers with E-ZPass lost access to a dedicated E-ZPass lane and were reduced to the speed of cash payers. Maximum through-put was probably hardly a quarter of the before-trial configuration.

Big backups but not that unusual - no media pickup to start with

It is not entirely clear whose idea it was to do the single-lane-for-Fort Lee, but the official who made it happen was the first official to resign in the aftermath, David Wildstein, director of interstate projects. (The toll bridges and tunnels, and the the PATH transit line NJ-NY are apparently such "projects.")

By some accounts, a so-far-unidentified port authority police union official at the bridge sold Wildstein on the idea as a way of speeding mainline traffic. Fort Lee was described as getting an “unfair share” of the toll lanes at the upper deck toll plaza.

In any case, it is known Wildstein pushed the idea hard in late August and early September, and discussed it with Cedrick Fulton, director of tunnels bridges and terminals, the official directly in charge of the six big toll facilities of the port authority. Also with Robert Durando, general manager of the George Washington Bridge, who is responsible for the bridge’s three toll plazas and the officers who manage traffic there.

Fulton and Durando have both told state assembly legislators they had serious reservations about the trial but feared for their jobs if they resisted Wildstein, who outranked them in the Port Authority hierarchy.

Wildstein had support for the trial from Bill Baroni, deputy executive director. Baroni was formally number two in the PANYNJ hierarchy, but as the top New Jersey officer he regarded himself as co-executive director and as properly having the last word at PANYNJ on New Jersey matters. This toll plaza on the New Jersey side was “none of Foye’s business” he’d say, because Foye was a New York appointee. Traffic matters at a toll plaza on the New Jersey side were New Jersey matters.

Fulton and Durando both thought executive director Pat Foye should be consulted about the trial, but Baroni told them he’d handle Foye - which he apparently did by telling him nothing at all. Foye, nominal chief executive at the Authority was left out of the loop, completely unaware of the trial to favor mainline over Fort Lee traffic by Baroni and Wildstein.

Fulton and Durando were ordered on Friday September 6  to run the trial with the cones placed to restrict Fort Lee traffic from Monday September 9 through the week to Friday 13th. It was to be in effect for five morning peak periods.

Mainline flow did improve

As expected it improved traffic flow in the mainline and motorists who normally took 20 minutes to get through the old toll plaza and across the bridge were able to do it 15 minutes. Everything was set up and they did a study of the results of the trial.  

But as expected by the traffic engineers it achieved improved mainline flow at the expense of Fort Lee traffic.  The forced merge of three lanes down to one lane caused major backups and much longer travel times for Fort Lee traffic.

A report by PANYNJ engineers monitoring the trial on its fourth day, Thursday, September 12th, said that backup onto local streets in Ft Lee were two lanes and half a mile long. Their preliminary estimate was that on average 600 vehicles experienced 2800 vehicle hours of delay - which was saying the average delay was 4 hours 40 minutes!

An engineer, Daniel Jacobs, reporting to Mark Muriello at 5:14pm on Thursday emailed a six page powerpoint in a file titled "Fort Lee Trial Review.ppt." It said that with mainline traffic of about 11,600 vehicles saving 5 minutes in travel time under a thousand vehicle-hours of delay would be saved. This was outweighed several times by aggregate new delay at Fort Lee.

And by delaying Ft Lee traffic in queues the port authority was getting fewer vehicles through during the peakhours when there’s a $2 premium in the toll so it was losing revenue to boot.

The tone of Jacobs’ Day 4 review is very negative about the Fort Lee trial, indicating with phrases like “as expected”  that the negative results had been forecast beforehand. The last page, Conclusions, has “TBD" (to be discussed).

Mark Sokolich, the Mayor of Fort Lee Borough, a community of some 35,000 living on either side of the bridge approaches, received lots of complaints, and his police department had to cope with the backups and frustrated  drivers. He couldn’t get through to anyone at the port authority who would discuss it.

Timothy Ford of Fort Lee police said they learned of the trial Monday morning when traffic backups extended down Palisade Avenue, their main north-south artery.

“We called (PANYNJ) police and they were told: 'We can't help you, the orders are coming from [our] higher-ups.'"

When the local police tried to find out from the port authority head office what was going on, ”They weren't returning our calls."

Cedrick Fulton, director of tunnels, bridges and terminals, says that in telephone conversations with Wildstein the previous Friday he’d said they needed to inform the locals but was told not to.

He’d argued against the trial, telling Wildstein, “This will not end well.”

But Wildstein was determined to proceed and he had the backing of Bill Baroni.

The motorists who were delayed so badly were angry, and as they sat in lines, they used their cell phones to call city hall, swamping the city officials with complaints. State representatives got calls too.

But the media showed little interest at first.

“Delays at the George Washington Bridge” generates a yawn and a “So what” or a “What’s new”at news desks. It happens so regularly from daily traffic overload, incidents large and small, and lane closures for maintenance.  

One columnist put in a query about the backups with the port authority press office on Thursday, September 12, asking the reason for the lane closures. The press office responded with a statement about the closures being part of a traffic safety study.

But that press office daily report of the nature of media inquiries (“media pendings” is the insider jargon term for the report) on that fourth day of the lane closures was the first that Patrick Foye, executive director of the Port Authority had heard of it.  He’d read it late that afternoon and  he’d asked Fulton and Durando what was going on. He was told by them they’d recommended against the trial but they’d been overruled by Baroni and Wildstein who told them not to tell anyone else what was happening.

"Appalled at lack of process..."

We now know that early Friday morning Foye sent a long email to Fulton and Durando saying he was “appalled at the lack of process, failure to inform our customers and most of all, by the dangers created to the public interest.”

A trial like this should only have been instituted after “due deliberation” and with the “sign-off of the ED (executive director.)” And commuters, local authorities and the media should have been told. 

Customers have been inconvenienced, economic activity damaged, and safety jeopardized through delay of emergency vehicles. Fort Lee was turned into "Gridlock City," it was reported. Foye apparently feared that the lane closure trial violated federal and state law.

In a Friday, 7:44 AM, email copied to seven others (not to Wildstein), Foye ordered the trial ended and three lanes restored for Fort Lee traffic as soon as possible. The cones were moved out of the way minutes later and Durando reported at 8:04 AM to the same email chain, “We have restored the 3 toll lanes to Ft Lee.”

That email and other internal documents about the affair only emerged two-and-a-half weeks later in response to subpoenas by legislative committees in Trenton. And it only became a media affair in October when it emerged that the two instigators of the lane closures (Wildstein and Baroni) were both nominees of Governor Chris Christie. That gave the story a political angle.

Payback?

Ted Mann at the Wall Street Journal was the first to report suggestions that the lane closures were political payback by Christie operatives against Fort Lee Mayor Sokolich. The  Sokolich-payback theory was that Sokolich had incurred the wrath of the Christie camp through refusing to endorse Christie’s re-election as governor, and that wreaking havoc in his backyard was vindictive politics.

Assembly transportation chairman John Wisniewski, a Democrat, has called the Fort Lee lane closures “political chicanery.”

He says of the port authority: “It’s not like a sewage authority — it has a budget bigger than 26 other U.S. states. It’s like Louisiana under Huey Long, except it’s a collective Huey Long — no one person can control the agency. You have rival gangs.”

His committee’s job, he said, was to determine whether the lane closures affair was “political mischief or just incompetence.”

He found it hard to believe pure incompetence could be the explanation.

Democrat majority leader in the state senate, Loretta Weinberg, told the Newark Star Ledger newspaper: “I believe this was ordered as an act of political retaliation. We have been given no rational reason for their having done this.”

There’s an anti-Christie video being circulated that uses sinister sound and imagery to link the Governor to the lane closure incident.

Governor Christie was asked at a press conference if he’d ordered the closings and said deadpan, “I actually was the guy in overalls and a hardhat working the cones out there.”  But he said more seriously last Friday after he’d asked Baroni to leave, “Mistakes were made and people have to take responsibility for them.”

Fort Lee mayor Mark Sokolich at one stage dabbled in the political payback theory but soon reversed himself saying he didn’t think he was important enough and the affair was more likely “plain stupidity” at the port authority.

The most improbable line was that of the port authority press office which offered this about the lane closures: “The Port Authority has conducted a week of study at the George Washington Bridge of traffic safety patterns. We will now review those results and determine the best traffic patterns at the GWB. We will continue to work with our local law enforcement partners."

There was a kind of study, as seen in a six panel powerpoint, a study not of safety but of changing traffic flows and travel times. It could have been explained as a trial of a different traffic pattern at the toll plaza to study changing traffic throughput, travel speeds and delays before and after. That clearly was studied.

COMMENT -- My Theory

Here’s our theory of what happened: Wildstein and Baroni were playing traffic engineers. They thought despite the professional traffic engineers advice to the contrary that while reallocating toll lanes in favor of the mainline they could keep the smaller volume of Fort Lee traffic moving through the plaza at tolerable speeds despite the two lane drops (3 lanes to 2 then to 1) introduced. Their idea was to reap political kudos from engineering faster, smoother mainline traffic flows by having pressed against stodgy engineers resistance the provision of eleven toll lanes in place of nine lanes for the mainline traffic.

Little note has been taken of how Baroni said at one point in legislative hearings that Fort Lee traffic represented only 5% of the traffic at the middle toll plaza, but had 25% (3 of 12 lanes) of toll capacity, and the trial was to see if this was "fair."  He may have made the same point to the governor in conversation because Christie himself remarked at one press conference, “The fact that one town has three lanes dedicated to it? That kind of gets me sauced.”

The increased toll lane capacity for the mainline did benefit the travelers from the turnpike and other expressways (US routes 4 and 46 and I-80) leading to the bridge with travel times through the toll plaza and over the bridge improving 25% (travel times averaging 15 minutes rather than 20 minutes.)

Wildstein hasn’t spoken to anyone yet, but maybe he hoped that he could take credit for having his guys at the Port Authority overrule stuck-in-the-mud, conservative traffic engineers, and saving everyone time moving over the bridge.

Where the Wildstein-Baroni plan crashed was in underestimating the effect of two lane drops on three lanes of traffic from Fort Lee and the unsustainability of imposing gridlock on a small community to provide benefits to the mainline motorists. It crashed, too, in trying to do too much at once.

A pragmatic approach would have been to gradually change the alllocation of toll lanes:

- allowing a sharing of the third lane from the right with merges of mainline and Fort Lee traffic

- or moving the cones over only one lane so it went from a 9/3 split to a 10/2 split and only one lane drop was imposed on Fort Lee traffic

In the limited world of an old toll plaza they over-reached.

Yet in another way they under-reached.

They could have helped achieve much more, arguably, if they’d pressed for an end to all those separate toll lanes and for traffic patterns based on optimal traffic flows with multilane all-electronic toll collection.

BACKGROUND: Toll collection at the George Washington Bridge is done eastbound at 31 toll lanes split between three toll plazas, going west to east:

-  a 12-toll-lane plaza for traffic traveling from the mainline to the lower deck of the bridge

- another 12-lane plaza for most traffic using the upper deck, rightside lanes of which are used by local Ft Lee traffic heading onto the bridge to New York which enters in a 3-lane right hand entry ramp, nine lanes left for mainline traffic

- a 7 toll lane plaza collecting tolls from traffic coming south on the Palisades Interstate Parkway which thenuses a loop to join the upper deck traffic

Tolls for cars are $11 in peakhours with E-ZPass, $9 offpeak, $13 cash.  5-axle trucks pay $65, $70 and $85.

Review of Fort Lee lanes reduction trial:

http://dng.northjersey.com/media_server/tr/2013/12/11port/PA1.pdf

emails between Foye and Barone:

http://online.wsj.com/public/resources/documents/NYBRIDGE1213.pdf

other emails on Trial

http://dng.northjersey.com/media_server/tr/2013/12/11port/PA4.pdf

Democrat take on the affair:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=En_43F4ycLc

TOLLROADSnews 2013-12-16

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