A Christie traffic punch line comes back to haunt

Westbound traffic backs up on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. Driving is an integral part of life in New Jersey, and meddling with residents' drives can spawn political road rage.
Westbound traffic backs up on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. Driving is an integral part of life in New Jersey, and meddling with residents' drives can spawn political road rage. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 16, 2014

WASHINGTON - One of the best parts of his job, Gov. Christie was explaining, is that he gets to avoid the traffic all too familiar to any New Jerseyan who has made the hellish drive into New York.

"Maybe when you're on the train, you see the people in all the traffic trying to get to the Lincoln Tunnel," Christie told an 8-year-old at a town hall meeting last year.

"When you're governor," he said, leaning in and pausing for comic effect, "they close the Lincoln Tunnel for you. And you get to drive right through!"

This was back in February, about seven months before Christie aides ordered the shutdown of two of the three lanes approaching the George Washington Bridge from Fort Lee in an apparent act of political thuggery that set off the Super Bowl of traffic jams and the greatest political crisis of Christie's career.

The young girl at the town hall had asked Christie about his favorite thing to do as governor.

The serious answer, Christie said - the answer the child should tell her teachers - is that "every morning I get up and I have the chance to do something great."

The fun answer, he explained, is going to New York.

"No traffic! It's the best. I love going to New York now," Christie said, his voice rising in Seinfeldian amazement. "I used to hate it because I'd sit in the traffic. Now, no traffic! I love it!"

The audience in Montville, about 30 miles west of Fort Lee, was rapt as Christie built up his story, and rolled with laughter as he hit his punch lines.

The answer became one of Christie's YouTube hits. It captured a talented political performer at the top of his game, connecting with the people he represents with a bit of New Jersey insight.

But the listeners' appreciation of Christie's riff also explains why the bridge furor resonates so deeply in the Garden State.

In the most densely packed state in the nation, everyone knows what it's like to see a 10-mile drive turn into 45 minutes of mind-searing rage.

Philadelphia and New York beckon from the south and north, but New Jersey is largely suburban - none of its cities' populations rank in the top 50 nationwide - so the state's 38,100 miles of road are an essential piece of life, part of the state's charm and aggravation.

It's a place where two major highways - the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway - are (for better or worse) icons.

Everything you could want is a short drive away: Within a few miles, you can travel from rural areas to urban centers, from brutal poverty to some of the wealthiest zip codes in the country, from mountains to strip malls to shoreline.

But there's no telling on any given day how long it will take to travel those miles.

I grew up one town over from where Christie did, so we've battled the same traffic circles, jughandles, and bottlenecks. (Route 10 connects his hometown, Livingston, and mine, West Orange. Saturday nights, its whims made the difference between arriving at the movie in time to catch the previews and walking in 10 minutes late.)

Just about anyone from that part of New Jersey has made the stop-and-go drive down the twisting spiral of asphalt that leads to the Lincoln Tunnel, or seen evening plans dissipate in a fog of exhaust fumes as they've idled in bridge traffic. Like the people in Fort Lee, they've all had days ruined before they even began.

That's why it's political disaster to meddle with New Jerseyans' driving (or ask motorists there to pump gas).

The subpoenas that prompted the most damaging bridge disclosures, remember, spawned from an investigation of toll hikes at the bridges and tunnels connecting New Jersey to New York.

Christie should know the dangers of political road rage well: It helped him beat incumbent Democrat Jon S. Corzine in the 2009 governor's race.

A year earlier, Corzine had launched a ham-handed plan to jack up tolls to pay down state debt. Voters revolted, and Corzine never recovered.

It was no coincidence when Middlesex County, a Democratic stronghold where the turnpike and the parkway intersect, flipped to the Republican column, giving Christie a critical boost in his first big victory.

There was a clear message: Don't mess with New Jersey's roads.

Christie is receiving a painful reminder.


jtamari@phillynews.com

@JonathanTamari

www.inquirer.com/capitolinq

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