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Chris Ward Gets the Call

Chris Ward Gets the Call

May 06, 2008
By By: Eliot Brown | New York Observer | New York Observer

On April 10, Christopher Ward was sitting in his midtown office when he got an unexpected phone call late in the afternoon. On the line was a mutual friend of Governor David Paterson’s top aide, Charles O’Byrne, calling with an unusual question.

“He just said, ‘Are you bored?’ And I said, ‘You’re not asking me as my psychiatrist-what are you asking me?'” Mr. Ward, 53, recounted. “He said, ‘They’re going to make a change at the Port Authority, and they’re very, very interested in you.'”

Mr. Ward, the managing director of the General Contractors Association of New York, did not need much convincing.

A few interviews and a background check later, and he was named the governor’s choice as the new executive director of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, a job for which he was passed over by Eliot Spitzer a year and a half earlier.

In nominating Mr. Ward-who is expected to be approved by the agency’s board of commissioners later this month-Mr. Paterson is going with a man widely regarded as a seasoned public servant who can breathe life into controversial and complicated public projects, lifting them off the drawing boards.

What Mr. Ward’s appointment is not, his supporters and critics agree, is one of political patronage-the kind that typified the top Port Authority job in recent years (Governor Pataki’s first Port Authority director, George Marlin, was a leader of the Conservative Party and once a candidate for New York City mayor). Apparently, Mr. Paterson, a governor with virtually no mandate from the voting public, resisted such a temptation, defying the many Albany operatives and observers who assumed the former Senate minority leader would be repaying favors with top appointments.

“There was a stereotype view that because he came out of the Democratic political organization, that he would favor the appointment of political operatives who had been starved under Pataki,” said Kathryn Wylde, CEO of the Partnership for New York City.

The reality seems to have been the opposite-Ms. Wylde praised Mr. Ward, calling him “a very hands-on, accessible leader”-as Mr. Paterson appears eager to make the Port Authority an integral part of his agenda for his abridged gubernatorial term.

Last week, Mr. Paterson said he would likely put one of his priority economic development projects, Moynihan Station, under the purview of the Port Authority. Tack onto that the billions in construction at the World Trade Center; a more than $7 billion new rail tunnel under the Hudson River; a new office tower atop a revamped Port Authority Bus Terminal; and management over the region’s four airports, and the agency’s impact on the New York City area becomes more apparent.

“I think the regional economy is driven by delivering the Port Authority’s infrastructure projects in a cost-effective way, and without them, the regional economy falters,” said Mr. Ward, who worked at the Port Authority under Governor Pataki before taking a job as commissioner of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection.

His directive from Mr. Paterson, as he understands it, is to provide “a real sense of mission and delivery,” he said. “The Port Authority is best served when it has a clear direction and goals to be had, and that is what I think the governor is looking for.”

To do so successfully, and to deliver on the enormous, often underfunded developments on his plate, is sure to be no easy task.

MANY OF THE projects at the World Trade Center site risk being woefully late and overbudget, such as the Santiago Calatrava-designed PATH station; and the Moynihan Station plan has failed to see a groundbreaking throughout the 15-plus years of its existence. The Port Authority also has a reputation among critics of being sluggish, heavily bureaucratic, and prone to the swings of a tug of war between the state legislatures of New Jersey and New York.

But among many observers, it is in this area-pushing through difficult initiatives-that Mr. Ward has built a reputation.

“Chris is one of the most effective bureaucratic manager-politicians I’ve worked with,” U.S. Representative Jerrold Nadler of Manhattan said via e-mail. “We have by no means always agreed. … But you can talk to him. And he listens. He’s willing to take the time to get into the meat of the issue and, sometimes, even be convinced. If he’s right, he wins. And if I’m right, I win.”

In his prior five-year stint at the Port Authority, where he served as chief of planning and external affairs until 2002, Mr. Ward helped oversee the AirTrain plan, the $1.9 billion project to run a new elevated rail line for Kennedy Airport through low-income, minority communities in Queens. Subject to widespread opposition and in need of numerous approvals, the project was no sure bet.

Mr. Ward engaged in lobbying campaigns, brought on civic groups, offered compromises, pushed and pulled and ultimately snaked his way through the various approval processes to see the project’s authorization.

“It was an impossible project,” said Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association. “It was like getting every possible impediment to moving forward on the city, state and federal levels, and Chris navigated those waters very adeptly.”

In 2002, Mr. Ward joined the Bloomberg administration and took on a relatively high-profile role as DEP commissioner. He spent much of his energy seeking to gain approval for a $1.3 billion water-filtration plant in the Bronx’s Van Cortlandt Park.

Over objections from the community, the local elected officials and at one point Governor Pataki, the plant ultimately gained approval from both the city and the state, and is now slated for completion in 2012.

The project and Mr. Ward had fierce critics, many of whom are still strong detractors, especially given the hundreds of millions in overruns the project is now facing.

“I believe, and so do many people, that DEP at the time deliberately understated-lowballed-the cost of building in Van Cortlandt Park and overstated the cost of building in [the alternative location of] Westchester,” said Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz of the Bronx. “There was no question he was smart. I think the most important reason he was effective is he had lots of taxpayer money to be effective.”

Mr. Ward, however, defends his cost estimates and holds that the project not only meant financial sense but was the right policy choice given the engineering needs of the system.

He left DEP in 2005 for what he said were financial reasons to take the CEO job at port operator American Stevedoring Inc., the company that spent years resisting efforts by the city to redevelop its Red Hook container port via a heavy lobbying campaign (the company received a 10-year lease approval from the Port Authority at its board meeting last month). Mr. Ward left that job in 2006 to become managing director at the General Contractors Association, an advocacy organization that pushes large infrastructure projects and was supportive of both the AirTrain and the water-filtration plant. That move frustrated politicians who opposed the plant; as Councilman Oliver Koppell said, “One generally finds that kind of movement in government to raise suspicions.”

Now Mr. Ward finds himself back in the driver’s seat on the large public projects, where he will likely spend time juggling the financial needs of projects and grappling with the obstacles that will inevitably appear at ground zero, the agency’s most expensive and high-profile initiative.

There, Mr. Ward’s entrance could lead to a revision of budgets and dates as he reviews the billions of dollars in construction that are planned and under way.

“It’s clear that the Spitzer administration inherited very unrealistic dates and budgets from the Pataki administration,” a state official said. “Chris Ward will clearly be looking very closely at all those deadlines, all those budgets.”

 

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