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The real Chris Christie traffic scandal you've forgotten

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Whatever you may think of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's response to a certain traffic scandal in his state -- do you believe his reaction on learning that his aides' political motivations were exposed was "sadness" that he'd been lied to? Neither do I -- you should know that as an indication of his style of governing and politics it's peanuts.

To get a better sense of his willingness to sacrifice his citizens' welfare for political expedience, you have to go back to an earlier scandal. That 2010 affair, coincidentally, also involved traffic, but on a much greater scale. And it involved lying and bullying too.

First, a quick recap on the news of the day. It appears that several high-level Christie aides connived to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, N.J., for failing to support the Republican Christie's reelection bid last year. They arranged to fill Fort Lee to the brim with gridlocked traffic by closing three lanes of the George Washington Bridge, which crosses the Hudson River from Fort Lee to Manhattan, for what turned out to be an imaginary "traffic study." At least one woman may have died because an ambulance couldn't reach her in time.

Aware that his reputation for bullying and thuggery could hurt his chances for the GOP presidential nomination, Christie held a marathon press conference Thursday in which he swore he knew nothing of the conniving and thought there really was a traffic study. He fired one of the aides whose emails calling for the traffic backup have been made public.

It's proper now to recall an action Christie took in 2010 that he owned up to quite proudly. This was his unilateral torpedoing of a $9-billion federal-state project to build a commuter train tunnel under the Hudson. The project would have doubled capacity on the route -- a crucial improvement given forecasts of sharply rising ridership and the decrepitude of the existing tunnel. It was the largest public transit project at the time, and had already begun. Christie's refusal to approve his state's share killed it.

The cancellation made Christie a darling of the conservative budget-cutting movement, instantly raising his profile as a GOP up-and-comer. Two years later, he was still crowing about his courageous act before conservative audiences.

His depiction of the project was typically blustering and deceitful: "They want to build a tunnel to the basement of Macy’s, and stick the New Jersey taxpayers with a bill," he said. You'd think that was pretty funny, unless you were a New Jersey commuter who knew that the "basement of Macy's" in midtown Manhattan is actually Pennsylvania Station, where the commuter trains go. 

By then, Christie's rationale for killing the tunnel had been exposed as a passel of lies. He had claimed that it would cost more than $14 billion, and that New Jersey would be on a "never-ending hook" for 70% of the cost. In fact, as the Government Accountability Office reported, $14 billion was the maximum estimate, and $10 billion the most likely final bill. And New Jersey's share was 14.4%, not 70%.

But the cancellation allowed Christie to divert the state's share of the tunnel budget to a state highway fund, which in turn allowed him to avoid raising the state gasoline tax -- already among the lowest in the nation -- by a few cents.

So here's the toll: Christie sacrificed the long-term welfare of his own citizens for short-term personal, political gain. He did so with bluster and deceit. Even after his own figures were exposed as bogus, he didn't hold a two-hour press conference to apologize and promise it wouldn't happen again. 

But which is the real Chris Christie? The one who claims to be "sad" and "humiliated" at the action of aides who at the very least figured they were acting as he would wish? Or the one who gloated over saving his state a few bucks in the near term by doing something that will cost it billions in the long term? Here's a good bet: We'll be seeing a lot more of the gloating and bullying Chris Christie than the sad and humiliated model as time goes on.

Reach me at @hiltzikm on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or by email. MORE FROM MICHAEL HILTZIK

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