TRENTON – Just following orders.
That was the mantra repeated time and again Monday by Port Authority of New York and New Jersey officials testifying about the September lane closures at Fort Lee.
Even though they thought the impending lane closures were going to cause problems, even though they thought that normal procedures were not being followed, Authority employees followed orders and on the morning of Sept. 9 shut down two of Fort Lee’s dedicated three lanes at the George Washington Bridge to conduct a traffic study.
Authority officials Robert Durando and his boss, Cedrick Fulton – responding to Assembly Transportation Committee subpoenas – offered testimony today that was in sync: The decision by since-resigned David Wildstein to close Fort Lee lanes was unusual, but questioning Wildstein’s superiors would have meant bypassing the chain of command.
“I was told not to discuss this with anyone,” Durando said at one point when asked why he didn’t at least inform Fort Lee officials of the traffic nightmare that they were going to face.
“How do you reconcile your obligation to run the George Washington Bridge by agreeing to not tell the motorists who use the bridge there is going to be a lane closure?” Transportation Chair John Wisniewski asked.
“To say I thought it was OK is a mischaracterization. I was following a directive,’’ Durando said.
Lawmakers, including Assemblymen Gordon Johnson, Gary Schaer and others, pointed out that the traffic study began on the first day of school, and that emergency services vehicles use the bridge daily, raising questions about safety being affected.
As committee members hammered at Authority officials about why they did not do more even though they knew something was amiss, the responses were uniform: We were following orders.
Published reports previously raised the question of whether the closures were payback because the Fort Lee mayor had not endorsed Gov. Chris Christie’s re-election.
Christie has said he had no involvement in the decision.
Wisniewski asked Durando if there is a culture of fear at the Port Authority, but he did not respond.