Gov. Christie Travels to Fort Lee to Apologize

January 9, 2014
By

By Jen Benepe–Fort Lee, NJ–January 9, 2014

But Mayor Sokolich has not helped traffic in Fort Lee either with his lack of progressive street planning policies.

With revelations today that a top aide to Governor Chris Christie had written an email advising officials to close down the bridge for political payback, the Governor traveled personally to Fort Lee, NJ to apologize.

Ironically, Christie’s trip caused a traffic jam in the area of the bridge where Fort Lee is located.

In his public apology to the Democratic mayor Mark Sokoloich, Christie said his top deputy was personally responsible for the snafu, and that he had fired her promptly for her actions.

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff for legislative and intergovernmental affairs, said in an e-mail to David Wildstein, then the highest-level appointee representing the state at the Port Authority, which operates the bridge connecting the two states.

“Got it,” Wildstein replied.

In another message about school buses with students on board caught in the traffic jams, Wildstein writes, “they are the children of Buono voters,” apparently referring to Barbara Buono, Christie’s Democratic opponent in the election that he won handily, reported CNN.

At a big press conference today attended by national media, Christie said he found out for the first time Wednesday that a member of his staff had been connected to the scandal and immediately fired Kelly.

Wildstein, who left his job in December as the Christie administration’s top appointee on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, refused to answer questions about the matter before a New Jersey Assembly committee that later held in him contempt.

Port Authority and Fort Lee Frequently at Odds

But neither a badly performing Governor of New Jersey nor a badly performing Port Authority is anything new to people who are familiar with the borough of Fort Lee, or who are used to crossing the bridge on a regular basis –especially those who cross by bicycle or on foot.

For one, the Port Authority has refused to answer this publication’s repeated emails and phone calls asking for details about when the south path–a major thoroughfare for cyclists–is going to be closed for a long period of time this coming year due to construction. Instead, our reporters have had to depend on word-of-mouth to get this information.

In the past the Authority has acted with stunning disregard for citizens who need to cross from New Jersey to New York or the other way around by permanently closing down the path every day after 12 midnight, a practice that started sometime after 9/11. This means no person can cross the bridge between 12 and 6 AM unless they drive a motor vehicle. The unofficial claim is that pedestrians and cyclists could potentially use the path in the nighttime and leave a bomb behind on the bridge.

But the assertion is almost ridiculous, given that terrorists can drive a car or truck onto the bridge at any time to do the same thing, or set off a missile from any of the surrounding, unguarded parks around the bridge.

Or consider the time in 2010, when the PANYNJ closed the south (pedestrian) path on Passover of all days (surprise!): I watched a family of five trying to climb the steep steps with bicycles on the north side.

Needless to say, the family turned around and went back home. (To see all of our articles on Benepes Bike Blog about just how badly the authorities on the GWB have behaved, click here.)

There is also some history between the Port Authority and Mayor Sokolich that suggests this fracas runs deeper than meets the eye.

Several years ago, Mayor Sokolich saw an opportunity when the Port Authority wanted to access the bridge from Fort  Lee in order to wrap the structure’s cables with anti-explosive material. Sokolich negotiated a payment for the access, monies that were then used to pay for the paving of the road under the bridge and for a new access route from the bridge to that road –intended mostly for cyclists.

It was a brave, genius, admirable move by Sokolich, but is only one of the many interdependencies that the town and the authority have engaged in.

Many of the streets that surround the bridge belong to the Port Authority but are supposed to be maintained by the town of Fort Lee: often, they are not. In the last two major snowstorms in the past month alone, almost all of the bridge overpasses that are heavily used by pedestrians, were not cleaned of ice and snow.It seems like the two entities are always at war, and this time was hardly an exception.

Other tensions exist: when a young woman left behind her iPad, keys and shoes on the bridge in January 2012, the Port Authority had no video of the event, making an investigation of her disappearance extremely difficult. Surprisingly, despite all of their braggadaggio about terrorism, the Port Authority does not have video running on its bridge cameras–just live camera feeds.

Eventually, the Fort Lee Police Department went through hours of video footage taken from the street onto the bridge area, and found the woman committing suicide on their video–as seen from the police deck in Fort Lee. Later the young woman’s body was found in the mud under the bridge.

Mayor Mark Sokolich of Fort Lee, NJ

Sokolich Has Ignored Traffic Mitigation Ideas

But Sokolich is not blameless either. For one, despite his embrace of the one bike path to the park (made on a sidewalk) his attitude towards the causes and effects of traffic tends to the old-fashioned.

Last year after viewing plans for two new major developments that would bring more than 2,000 new residents and their cars plus many more visitors to the immediate area around the entrance to the bridge in Fort Lee, Cyclists International sent a letter to Mr. Sokolich asking him to use the opportunity to build bike lanes, and make changes to the town to make it safer for pedestrians.

These remarks were made in response to the numerous objections by residents of Fort Lee to the new developments because of the traffic problems they would bring. Currently Fort Lee has a population of close to 36,000, and already the area is heavily congested. Few children walk to school, many of them ferried by worried parents the one to three miles they have to get to school. Maybe one to five children ride to school.

There is not a single bike route anywhere in the town, except for a larger striped lane on Hudson Terrace–which is really concentrated in the adjacent town of Englewood Cliffs.

CI has interviewed a number of pedestrians in town, especially the elderly and has been told on numerous occasions that it is “too dangerous” to walk to the store from their homes. They meant “dangerous” in terms of being hit by cars.

In 2012 a 90-year-old woman was struck by a man backing up in a parking lot of all things: she later died from her injuries. A woman who could not reach her car due to the ensuing inquiry and had to travel 3 blocks to get to the nail salon refused to walk there because she said it was too dangerous.

Famously in 2012, a Fort Lee man ran over his girlfriend multiple times, killing her before he was stopped by onlookers.

And in 2013, another woman, traveling by wheelchair whose sidewalk access to one of the few supermarkets was blocked by a garbage bin, was struck and pinned under a car for two hours.  A third woman was killed in 2012 crossing Palisades Ave. where the speed limit is supposed to be 25 mph, but where drivers routinely travel 40 to 50 mph.

The letter from CI recommending that the town now adopt Complete Street plans was sent by snail mail and email to Mayor Sokolich in August 2013, but he never answered either.

Under Sololich’s watch last summer, the Fort Lee Planning Board approved the Fort Lee Redevelopment Associates (FLRA)’s site plan for the East parcel of the long-vacant Redevelopment Area 5. The Plan, which the board approved unanimously, includes two 47-story towers with 902 luxury residential units, a 1.7-acre public park, a restaurant and a small movie theater.

The second half of the $1-billion development of the area will include 175,000 square feet of retail, 477 residential units, and a 475 room hotel.

Both projects appear to be going forward without any street design improvements intended to make cycling safer. Indeed most people in Fort Lee use cars just to travel one to two miles.

But because the Mayor is ignoring pleas to make the town more bike able and walkable, two things that would bring car traffic down, it begs the question: does he really care?

 

 

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  • Bikirl

    I appreciate your insightful reporting on the traffic issues in Fort Lee, N.J., and your advocacy on behalf of its pedestrians and cyclists.

  • Jennifer Benepe

    Not true. Mayor Sokolich has had multiple opportunities to join the discussion and get with the Complete Streets program since 4 years ago when we got involved in Fort Lee. They have never responded to a single invitation or request. More than 25% of the traffic could be reduced if the town was safe to ride and walk in, but it is not. I realize that they “like” the idea, but have never made it happen.

  • gronnerpr

    Jen: our traffic woes are regional in nature, and we need the state DOT to provide expertise. Beyond the ability of the Fort Lee mayor & council.

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