Years before they resigned amid a scandal over politically motivated lane closures at the George Washington Bridge, Governor Christie’s top two executives at the Port Authority led a secretive campaign to quickly push through controversial toll hikes on the Hudson River bridges and tunnels by drowning out criticism, limiting public input and portraying the governors of New York and New Jersey as fiscal hawks who reined in an out-of-control agency.
At its heart was a plan to have the Port Authority, an independent bi-state agency, propose an enormous toll hike — a $6 increase that would bring the E-ZPass toll to $14 by 2014 — so that the governors could then scale it back. The smaller increases that were ultimately approved in 2011 — $4.50 over four years — allowed both governors to claim credit while they set the stage for each state to claim hundreds of millions of dollars to fund pet projects not directly related to the Port Authority.
It was a sleight of hand that began with a campaign-style operation that, according to interviews with more than a half-dozen people familiar with the operation, was run out of a conference room on the southwest corner of the 15th floor of the Port Authority’s Manhattan headquarters.
It was referred to as the “war room.”
Running the campaign were former Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni and his aide, David Wildstein, both central figures in the bridge scandal and its first political casualties.
Hanging from the door of the war room was a sheet of paper that warned: “Do Not Enter.” The room was accessible to very few of the agency’s senior staff, but not the New York-appointed executive director, who had fallen out of favor with Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Some of the more than one dozen people regularly inside the room — mostly Christie loyalists placed at the agency — were instructed not to reveal its secrets.
One outsider was granted access.
Maggie Moran, then an employee of a large regional labor union led by a Port Authority commissioner, helped mobilize hundreds of union workers who flooded public hearings that were scheduled at times and places that made it difficult for the general public to attend. Drawing from scripted messages, laborers wearing orange T-shirts spoke favorably of the toll hikes at the hearings, providing Christie with a talking point.