Part 3—Real conduct which did occur: Last night, at the start of his cable program, one of the era’s biggest con men offered an overview of the Fort Lee fiasco:
MATTHEWS (1/22/14): Good evening. I’m Chris Matthews in San Francisco. Let me start tonight with this:For the record, Matthews refers to massive traffic jams in Fort Lee, traffic jams involving thousands of cars trying to get to the bridge.
Like barnacles on a boat, suspicious matters now cling to the New Jersey governor’s office in Trenton. It began with an e-mail from Governor Christie`s office setting the clock for “traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
Who struck up that conspiracy which led a deputy chief of staff to simply alert David Wildstein of the bridge authority it was time for that jam-up to occur? Who masterminded the scheme to disrupt traffic holding on—heading into the George Washington Bridge the first day of school? Who scripted the cover-up that the bridge tie-up was the result of a traffic survey?
According to Matthews, the claim that this mess was the result of a traffic survey was a “cover-up.” It isn’t clear what Matthews meant by this statement, but factual claims are rarely clear on this cable program.
Did Matthews mean that no traffic study ever took place—that Wildstein closed the access lanes, then concocted a cover story at some later point?
Did Matthews mean that there actually was a traffic study, or something resembling a traffic study, but that it was simply a ruse—an excuse to close the access lanes and throw Fort Lee into chaos?
Whatever! Matthews rarely feels the need to be clear on his cable news program—or even to know his basic facts. As he continued, he said this:
MATTHEWS (continuing directly): Did the governor himself finally step in to shut down the noise level by calling Governor Cuomo of New York to get him to cool down the investigation into the traffic problems in Fort Lee? And how does anyone in the governor’s circle account for the entry in the journal of Hoboken mayor Dawn Zimmer that the lieutenant governor had put the squeeze on her, saying the governor put her up to it, to back a development project favored by Christie’s associates, or else forfeit state disaster funds?In the highlighted statement, Matthews continues advancing the claim that Christie phoned Cuomo to complain. Both governors have said that isn’t true, but Matthews keeps advancing the claim without including that fact.
In fairness, the chances are slim that Matthews knows what Cuomo said last month about that alleged complaint from Christie. Hardball runs on story line, not on actual facts.
But Matthews is hardly alone in his hazy account of the alleged “cover up” surrounding the alleged traffic study. In its lengthy front-page reporting, the New York Times has worked very hard to avoid reporting basic facts behind that alleged traffic study.
Confusion has resulted. Today, we thought we’d show you some of the things you haven’t learned from the Times, in a succession of front-page reports which have been as long as 2800 words.
A great deal of speculation has swirled about those traffic lane closings. Why did Wildstein order them closed? What was his actual motive?
Just yesterday, we articulated a very unpleasant possible theory concerning a billion-dollar development. If something like that theory turns out to be true, then the traffic study was essentially a hoax, a feint designed to shake money loose from a very fat money tree.
Did David Wildstein conduct a hoax connected to that development? We can't tell you that! At this point, there is no dispositive evidence concerning the motives behind his actions.
The alleged traffic study may have been a hoax, a ruse. It may have been designed to hide the actual motive for the lane closings.
That may be what happened. Today, though, we ask a different question:
Is it possible that David Wildstein actually was conducting, or attempting to conduct, a good-faith traffic study? In our view, it hasn’t been yet shown that this wasn’t the case.
Why was Matthews blustering about “the cover-up?” In part, he did so because he knows that’s the story favored on his network. We’ll also assume that he has done little research about what happened that week.
And alas! For people reading the New York Times, many events from that week have essentially disappeared. Tomorrow, we’ll show you the way the Times has reported on the alleged traffic study. For today, let’s run through some of information from last month’s public hearings that the paper has failed to report or discuss.
The Times’ first news report on this topic appeared on December 10. The day before, three bridge officials testified about those events before a New Jersey legislative committee.
On December 10, the Times reported, or pretended to report, the substance of that day-long hearing. Below, we’ll show you some of the things the Times has never reported.
The collection of data
Did a traffic study actually take place that week? Within the reporting which has occurred, that has largely been a matter of semantics.
But as we noted yesterday, there is no doubt that large amounts of traffic data were being collected that week. During the December 9 hearing, Robert Durando, general manager of the bridge, described part of the effort.
For the full transcript, click here:
ASSEMBYLAN WISNIEWSKI (12/9/13): At any time on Monday [September 9] did you talk to your traffic experts or engineers within the Port Authority and say, “Hey guys, what do you think?”This is a basic part of what happened this week. In a succession of front-page reports, one of which ran almost 3000 words, the New York Times has never reported the fact that this data collection occurred.
DURANDO: We had talked about gathering data, which certainly takes some time to do. Over the ensuing days—the Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday—data was provided that indicated, from their perspective, that there was a slight improvement in the main line, as we’ve discussed earlier—in main line travel through the upper level of the George Washington Bridge.
WISNIEWSKI: You said, “We.” Who is the “we?”
DURANDO: The traffic folks that Cedrick [Fulton] mentioned earlier who work within Tunnels, Bridges, and Terminals who download and analyze that data.
WISNIEWSKI: And so on Monday they were downloading data?
DURANDO: As it became available. It’s tolls data, so it’s people driving through toll lanes. As toll collectors hit different buttons, it counts those vehicles. So it takes them time to compile it. It’s real-time, so—I mean, it started at 6 in the morning. It would take 24 hours, obviously, to get 24-hour data.
WISNIEWSKI: So on Tuesday you had Monday’s data.
DURANDO: We did.
WISNIEWSKI: And that was submitted to your internal traffic department?
DURANDO: Those were the folks who were gathering the data and looking at it to provide some sort of an analysis…
WISNIEWSKI: So that was provided on a daily basis or obtained on a daily basis by your traffic department?
DURANDO: It was obtained. So for Monday, data was not available until Tuesday. The traffic folks who Mr. Fulton talked about—the planners who would collect the data collected Tuesday’s data, looked at it, analyzed it, did the same thing with Tuesday’s data. By the end of the week, they had made a determination that there was a slight improvement on the main line flow.
That data collection may have been part of a hoax. But the data collection did occur. It’s astounding to see the New York Times disappear this basic fact.
The stated rationale for the closings
Whatever actually happened that week, the traffic study was not a “cover story” invented after the fact. Data collection occurred all week. For details, see below.
Earlier, a rationale for the data collection had been given.
In this testimony, Durando described Wildstein’s first notice about the impending action, which occurred on August 21. He then described Wildstein’s first statement about the reason for the lane closings:
“The reason I was given was, to conduct a traffic study.”
Durando was told the lanes would be closed as part of a traffic study. What was the stated rationale for this alleged traffic study?
Durando wasn’t asked that question during the September 9 hearings. Earlier in the day, his boss, Cedrick Fulton, had spoken to that question.
Fulton is director of the George Washington Bridge. In this passage, he described a conversation with Durando:
WISNIEWSKI (12/9/13): And what was your conversation with Mr. Durando on Friday, September 6?There you see the rationale for the alleged traffic study. The question was this: Would traffic on I-95 (“throughput”) move faster if the two access lanes from Fort Lee were closed?
FULTON: That we needed to do everything that we could to make this operation work—given the directive that we had received. And to be prepared to revert the operation, if necessary.
WISNIEWSKI: And in your conversation with him, did he at any time raise to you, “Mr. Fulton, what are we doing? Why are we doing this?”
FULTON: We talked about the question that was presented to us—which was, Would the main line work better? And neither one of us had an answer to that question. We could only say that maybe, if there were more lanes dedicated to the main line. But neither one of us could produce the information which would say it for a certainty either way—that not doing it wouldn’t have a significant improvement on the main line.
Mr. Wildstein’s question was, and his directive was one to understand how much better throughput would get, could get on the main line, if we reduced the number of lanes out of Fort Lee?
That’s a somewhat underwhelming question. Presumably, if traffic onto the bridge was reduced from Fort Lee, pre-existing northbound traffic would automatically move along better.
Still, that was the stated rationale. As such, it’s a basic part of the story.
In another part of his testimony, Fulton described the basic question again, saying he couldn’t answer it at the time it was posed:
FULTON (12/9/13): When he directed that the lanes be reduced, his supposition—and again, we didn’t have this conversation directly, so I’m giving you the best answer that I can.Later, Fulton explained it again:
ASSEMBLYWOMAN CARIDE: And I appreciate that.
FULTON: The question was, if there was only one lane as opposed to three, could the overall throughput through the George Washington Bridge be improved? That was the fundamental question that he was asking, for which I didn’t have an answer.
ASSEMBLYMAN JOHNSON (12/9/13): When you were directed, or you were advised, I guess, that the bridge was going to be closed, you were told that was for a study?In testimony on November 25, Bill Baroni had already described this rationale in obsessive detail. In the December 9 hearing, Fulton testified that the rationale had been stated in real time.
FULTON: An understanding of what would happen if Fort Lee didn’t have those three lanes.
JOHNSON: And that was for a study?
FULTON: I’m not sure he used the word “study” with me. But it was clearly a desire to understand what would happen if Fort Lee did not have those three lanes.
As best we can tell, this rationale has never been coherently described in the New York Times. Tomorrow, we’ll show you the way Kate Zernike did describe it in her initial report about this December 9 hearing.
For the record, Wildstein seemed adamant about the need for the study. In this testimony, Fulton again described the stated rationale:
FULTON (12/9/13): After the initial call [on September 6], I called him back again. It was basically the same conversation again—just to restate what I wanted him to understand about the importance of communicating to the Executive Director, recognizing that this would likely become a media event at some point so they needed to be involved.According to Fulton, Wildstein wanted “a test to understand what the benefits to the main line could be if the lanes were reduced from three to one.”
WISNIEWSKI: Why would it become a media event?
FULTON: Well, it would be highly visible. My exact words were, “This will not end well.”
WISNIEWSKI: Okay. And his response to this was?
FULTON: That the three lanes had been in place for a long—I forget the exact number of years—but that no one, including myself, were able to produce any documentation as to why. And that it was appropriate for him to be able to have a test to understand what the benefits to the main line could be if the lanes were reduced from three to one.
This rationale was clearly explained at the hearing. It certainly isn’t hard to state—unless you’re a front-page reporter for the New York Times.
The findings, such as they were
It seems like a fairly safe bet! If you slow bridge traffic from Fort Lee, pre-existing northbound traffic will be able to cross the bridge faster. That said, data collection proceeded that week, with modest findings observed.
In the first passage posted above, Durando testified to that set of findings: “By the end of the week, [traffic planners] had made a determination that there was a slight improvement on the main line flow.”
In its lengthy, front-page reports, the New York Times has completely skipped this type of information. In smaller, less famous newspapers, real reporting has occurred.
Here’s Shawn Boburg, reporting in the Bergen Country Record:
BOBURG (12/10/13): Internal documents obtained by The Record show that planning for the study began a week-and-a-half before the Sept. 9 lane shift was ordered by Wildstein. They also show that Port Authority traffic engineers predicted that narrowing Fort Lee's dedicated access lanes from three to one would result in 600-vehicle backups on local streets that would not clear until noon each weekday. Wildstein ordered the study anyway, agency officials testified Monday, saying he wanted to see if it would speed up non-local traffic approaching the bridge on Route 95.Oof! Initial results were extremely poor, as had been predicted.
At just after 5 p.m. on Thursday, Daniel Jacobs, a manager in the department that oversees tunnels and bridges, emailed Mark Muriello, another high-ranking employee within the department, a document entitled, "Reallocation of Toll Lanes at the GWB: An EARLY assessment of the benefits of the trial."
The report said the lane shift shaved off an average of five minutes for Route 95 drivers over the four days. But the combined delays experienced by motorists from the Fort Lee entrance eclipsed the time saved by other drivers.
The Fort Lee traffic waited a combined additional 2,800 hours during the four busiest morning commuting hours, while Route 95 traffic saved a total of only 966 combined hours over that time. The report referenced the predictions made prior to the test.
That said, this reporting cuts several ways. It shows Wildstein blundering ahead into the face of predicted disaster. It also helps us discern a basic point:
Whatever the actual motive for the lane closings may have been, the alleged traffic study was not a “cover story” dreamed up after the fact. For whatever reason, data had been collected and analyzed all week long, producing bad results.
We started with a basic question: Is it possible Wildstein could have undertaken this action in good faith? Is it possible that he was actually trying to conduct a traffic study or test?
Is it possible he was actually looking for a way to improve traffic flow? If so, he seems to have proceeded very stupidly. But stupidity is widely observed all over our world, as you know if you’ve watched cable news in the past fifteen years.
Is it possible that Wildstein conducted this action in something resembling good faith? That this was a work of monumental stupidity ahead of anything else?
We’d have to say that remains a possibility, although other, deeply nefarious motives are entirely possible too. Sensible people will wait for investigations to puzzle such matters out.
That said, if you read the New York Times, there is no need to wait. The Times has already reported, on its front page, that the motive has been “revealed:” Wildstein was trying to punish Fort Lee’s mayor because he didn’t endorse Chris Christie for re-election.
Plainly, that motive hasn’t been established, unless you’re reading the Times. And the real motive may be much worse.
That said, the Times has offered a wide array of bad reporting about the Fort Lee mess, starting with its failed attempts to count two traffic lanes. It has grossly misstated some of the testimony offered by Durando and Fulton—and in a succession of front-page reports, it has said nothing about the data collection which occurred that week.
When Kate Zernike pretended to describe the rationale for the alleged traffic study, she produced an absurd account, as we’ll see tomorrow.
What was Wildstein’s actual motive for these disastrous lane closings? Someday, we may even find out. No explanation seems to make sense. Investigations proceed.
Tomorrow, though, we’ll review what the Times has reported about that alleged traffic study. In our view, the paper’s reporting of this event has allegedly been very poor.
Tomorrow: Semantics is us! How many angels can dance on the head of an alleged traffic study?