New Jersey 101.5

An official with the Port Authority said a traffic study was to blame for massive delays approaching the George Washington Bridge from Fort Lee in September, but the head of the New Jersey Assembly's Transportation Committee said a hearing Monday into unannounced lane closures ended with more questions than answers.

Bill Baroni, Port Authority Deputy Executive Director (L), and Patrick Foye, Port Authority Executive Director (John Moore/Getty Images)

Bill Baroni, deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, apologized for what he acknowledged was the agency's failure to communicate to local officials that two of three local-access lanes to the upper level of the George Washington Bridge would be closed for a week starting Sept. 9. The study was canceled after three days because of gridlock.

Democrats on the panel, some of whom believe the lane closures were a show of force by Gov. Chris Christie's administration after the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee wouldn't endorse the governor for a second term, were skeptical throughout the hearing. Chairman John Wisniewski complimented Baroni on his ability to dodge questions, and Assemblywoman Linda Stender got into a shouting match with him.

"You are masterful at avoiding the answer and we appreciate your dancing skills," Wisniewski told the chief witness.

Baroni is a former Republican state senator from Mercer County and Chris Christie ally who was appointed by the governor to the bistate agency.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich suggested that the closures were "punitive" in a private letter to Baroni, but since recanted. He was invited to testify Monday, but declined.

Baroni maintained that the traffic study was commissioned after questions were raised to David Wildstein, a former Republican mayor and another Christie ally at the authority, about having three traffic lanes set aside for drivers from Fort Lee.

"Is it fair," Baroni asked.

He said two days' worth of data showed the commute time was longer for Fort Lee drivers without the special lanes, while the drive time for everyone else was about 4 minutes shorter (a third day of data was discarded because of a major accident).

Afterward, Wisniewski offered this assessment of the lane closures: "I think at best this was clumsy and ham-handed and not befitting an agency that is entrusted with billions of dollars every year. At worst, this was political mischief by a political appointee and another political appointee that they did not make available for testimony."

The issue may not be over.

The Journal last month published emails from another agency official, Executive Director Patrick Foye, in which he called the closures "abusive" and possibly a violation of state and federal laws. Foye wasn't available Monday due to a scheduling conflict.

Wisniewski is hoping Foye will testify at a later date. He did not rule out sending subpoenas to him and Wildstein if they won't appear voluntarily.

The issue also could resurface at the next Port Authority board meeting on Dec. 4.
(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved)