NEWARK – David Wildstein, the former high-ranking Port Authority official currently testifying in the Bridgegate trial, said during his Monday testimony that he conspired with defendants Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni to redirect traffic from two local access lanes of the George Washington Bridge in September 2013 so that the resulting traffic congestion would coincide with the first day of school in the bridge’s host community of Fort Lee.
According to Wildstein, he spoke with former Port Authority Deputy Executive Director Baroni following an August 13 email from former Deputy Chief of Staff for New Jersey Governor Chris Christe Kelly. Wildstein said he took Kelly’s email (“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee”) as direction that the lane closures–which Wildstein claimed he thought up as a point of “political leverage” for Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich months before the closures–should occur. The witness said that after the decision to move forward with the closures, he and Baroni discussed when such closures would have “maximum impact” on Fort Lee traffic. According to Wildstein, during that conversation, Baroni asked when the borough’s first day of school would be. Wildstein said he looked it up and determined that Fort Lee school would open on September 9, 2013. According to Wildstein’s testimony he and Baroni agreed that the lane closures would coincide with the first day of school.
Wildstein also said that he discussed that timing with Kelly following reaching the agreement with Baroni.
“She agreed that was the day to start,” Wildstein said. The lane closures occurred between September 9 and 12, 2013.
During his earlier testimony, Wildstein said that the lane closures were done in order to “punish” Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for his failure to endorse Christie for re-election to the governor’s office.
In his testimony, Wildstein also claimed that William “Pat” Schuber, a commissioner, knew about the real reasons for the lane closures several days before they occurred. According to Wildstein, Schuber was told because he was a “loyal member of Governor Christie’s team.” Wildstein said that both Baroni and Kelly knew about his conversation with Schuber.
Additionally, Wildstein claimed that it was his idea to pass off the lane closures as a “traffic study” when approached about the traffic by commuters, media, elected officials or fellow Port Authority employees. He said that he discussed the cover story with both Kelly and Baroni.
“I wanted a public policy reason to do it rather than saying it was political and punitive,” Wildstein said.
According to Wildstein, he and Baroni also agreed that the response to questions about the lane closures would be met with “radio silence” from Baroni. During his testimony last week, Sokolich described numerous unreturned calls, text messages and a letter sent to Baroni when the lane closures were clogging up the streets of his town.
Wildstein said that, initially, the plan he had for the lane closures would have resulted in even further traffic in Fort Lee and the surrounding area. The former director of interstate capital projects said that his original plan was to completely remove all cones segregating the local access lanes from the lanes coming from the major highways. However, upon discussion with General Manager of the George Washington Bridge Bob Durando and Port Authority engineers, the plan transitioned to funneling all traffic from those lanes into one cash/EZ Pass toll booth. Wildstein said the plan changed because Port Authority engineers advised that the shift in traffic pattern for the “study” from three designated lanes to no designated lanes would result in a large number of “side swipe” collisions.
Wildstein’s testimony also touched upon the interaction of the Port Authority and Governor’s office with Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, another witness who will testify later in the trial. According to Wildstein, a 2012 contract with FAPS with coordinated with the Port Authority in the hopes of getting Fulop’s endorsement for Christie in 2013. An email exchange between Wildstein and former Christie Chief of Staff Bill Stepian featured Wildstein claiming that he “built a few emergency exits into the deal and can screw him in less than an hour” about Fulop.
Wildstein’s testimony will continue on Tuesday. He has yet to be questioned by the defense.