TRENTON – It was like watching two people wrestle for control of the wheel.
Assembly Democrats wanted Port Authority Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni to answer questions today about the specific timetable that led up to a traffic nightmare in Fort Lee in September when George Washington Bridge lanes were closed.
Baroni sought to talk about the overall issue of bridge traffic congestion.
The Democrats wanted chain of command specifics: Who knew what when? Who called who when?
Baroni wanted to tell Transportation Committee members about how many of their constituents use the world’s busiest bridge every day and whether it is fair to devote three lanes to host community Fort Lee.
In the end, Baroni said he answered fairly the questions put to him while Democrats begged to differ.
Chair John Wisniewski characterized Baroni’s answers and Port Authority actions during a break in the committee hearing.
“At best it was clumsy, ham-handed,” he said, “at worst, it was political mischief by an appointee they didn’t make available’’ to testify today.
Baroni had said that Port Authority official David Wildstein made the call – after meeting with Port Authority police and engineering staff – that a traffic study necessitating lane closures was needed in early September.
Of the four Authority officials asked to appear today, only Baroni attended.
Wisniewski said they would reach out again to Executive Director Patrick Foye to see if he would be available another day, who begged off, citing a scheduling conflict. Baroni, however, told Wisniewski in no uncertain terms that Wildstein would not appear before the committee. Wildstein is the former editor of PolitickerNJ.
The panel does have subpoena power if it wants to exercise it but Wisniewski said they don’t want to use that power just yet.
Baroni, after exiting the hearing, said that both sides of the aisle today made it clear there are “significant” policy issues that need to be addressed regarding devoting so many lanes to one town at the expense of the 95 percent of the other commuters.
“I think there is a fundamental question of fairness,’’ Baroni said, while reiterating that the Authority needed to do a better job of keeping local officials in the loop in the future.
But Wisniewski was not impressed with Baroni.
He said there “still is a veil of secrecy’’ over this traffic study at the Authority, and he said it would not have been productive to ask Baroni about whether the shutdowns were a political act because no one would really expect Baroni to admit something like that.
Published reports have suggested the closures were retaliation for the Fort Lee mayor not endorsing the governor’s re-election.
“His appearance and attitude were somewhat clownish,’’ Wisniewski said of Baroni’s testimony. “He smirked” throughout, he said, and called the Authority’s overall attitude about what happened in Fort Lee “cavalier.’’
Baroni has been at the Authority three and a half years, yet only in the midst of a gubernatorial campaign did the lanes have to be closed, Wisniewski said. “Suddenly, he (Baroni) is shocked three lanes are dedicated to Fort Lee,’’ Wisniewski said.