The problem with Port Authority boss Chris Ward is that he doesn’t owe Andrew Cuomo a thing

World Trade Center site. (wtcprogress)
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When the New York Post reported in late May that Governor Cuomo was planning to can Port Authority executive director Christopher Ward, the man widely credited with transforming the symbol of public-private incompetence known as Ground Zero into a functional development site, the cries of disapproval were near instantaneous.

“If Cuomo fires Chris Ward, NY and NJ will lose a proven leader,” read one Streetsblog headline.

Transportation Alternatives and the New York League of Conservation Voters issued a press release expressing “dismay” that Cuomo would consider firing Ward, with Trans Alt’s Paul Steely White calling Ward “a great friend of the people of New York.”

New York Post editor Steve Cuozzo, an avid commentator on all things Ground Zero, wrote, “Cuomo is obligated to make decisions about the new World Trade Center based on the needs of New York, not of New Jersey. That means keeping Christopher Ward on the job as Port Authority executive director—unless he knows of someone demonstrably more able to keep reconstruction on the fast track.”

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As of today, Ward still has his job, although it's not clear that he will for much longer.

He wouldn't be the first successful, unusually acclaimed authority leader to be frozen out by the Cuomo administration. In July, MTA head Jay Walder, another of the otherwise hapless governor Paterson’s surprisingly well-regarded appointments, announced that he was leaving his $350,000-a year job as head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for a corporate gig overseeing Hong Kong's well-financed transit system. This weekend, the Times reported that Walder was driven to take that job in part because of his essentially nonexistent relationship with the governor, “suggesting a lack of interest by Mr. Cuomo that irked and discouraged Mr. Walder.” In the article, Cuomo’s spokesman resorts to insisting that Cuomo and Walder had actually spoken on the telephone many times.

Similarly, sources say Ward rarely gets to communicate directly with the governor, instead dealing mostly with Howard Glaser, Cuomo’s director of state operations, and then only via email. Cuomo’s lack of interest in building a relationship with the Port Authority director, who oversees the operations of a highly politicized agency with a $7.2 billion 2011 budget and control of every major airport and tunnel in New York City, would seem to suggest that Ward's days are numbered. According to one of Ward's confidants, he has already started looking for another job, and is contemplating a run for office at some point.

Ward's problem, in the end, may simply be that he doesn't owe Cuomo his job at the Port Authority.

“I don’t think either Cuomo or [his secretary Larry] Schwartz feels that Ward is one of their guys who can go to war when they need to internally,” said a top Albany lobbyist who knows both men well. “Ward talks to the media on his own, is a little bit of a maverick, has his own base, and has built his own relationships.”

Ward does have an unusually broad base of engaged supporters, for someone in an ostensibly technocratic job. Big Real Estate likes him. So do good-government groups, construction unions, transportation activists, environmental advocates, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

“I think the business community believes he’s responsive, he’s honest, he listens,” said James Stuckey, divisional dean of the NYU Schack Institute of Real Estate and former Forest City Ratner Companies executive. “I think that’s what people really love to have in government, someone who can just give them an answer. I also think he’s very adept at finding solutions. Whatever happens will happen, but if we lose Chris, it’s going to be unfortunate.”

“He’s not your typical bureaucrat,” agreed Gene Russianoff, attorney for the NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign, which advocates for subway riders. “He thinks. He ponders.”

WARD IS AN UNUSUAL SORT OF BUREAUCRAT, certainly.

At various points he worked on an oil rig, studied at Harvard Divinity School, and was CEO of a local port operator. In 1976, Ward attended the Last Waltz, the final concert by The Band at The Winterland in San Francisco, which Martin Scorcese turned into a celebrated concert film.

In making his way up the ranks of permanent government, from the consumer affairs department to the Department of Telecommunications and Energy to the Economic Development Corporation, where he worked as senior vice president for transportation and commerce, Ward has also shown himself comfortable using the proverbial revolving door, moving between the public and private sectors as the need arises, and endearing himself to both public and private constituencies.

In 2004, after serving as Bloomberg's first commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, where he succeeded in pushing through the Croton Filtration Plant, a controversial federally mandated facility that the administration sited under a popular Bronx park, he left to join American Stevedoring, a port operator, as its CEO. In 2008, he left the General Contractors Association of New York, where he was managing director, to became executive director of the Port Authority.

“What Chris is, he’s a student," said the Ward confidant. "He’s interested in stuff. If you’re smart and interested in stuff, you want to know how it works. That operates on all levels. He’s as knowledgeable about music as he is about how underpinnings work and how a suspension bridge is constructed.”

During his tenure as executive director of the Port Authority, Delta launched a $1.2 billion expansion of its creaky terminal at JFK airport. Ward kick-started a long-planned redesign of the dilapidated George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal, and helped negotiate a $500 million expansion of the Port Newark Container Terminal. He also took the politically brave step of calling for higher taxes on fuel, and has promised to make the Authority’s facilities more bike-friendly, both measures popular with environmentalists.

Above all else, however, Ward’s cachet is rooted in his resurrection of the World Trade Center development. The story of his stewardship of Ground Zero is, in part, the story of what didn’t happen. From the day in 2008 when he issued a revised construction timeline, there have been no major delays. As promised, the memorial will open in time for the attack’s tenth anniversary, an event expected to be attended by all the relevant living presidents, governors and mayors.

Ward's success navigating the shark-infested waters of the famously political bistate agency he runs has been marked by a willingness to fight. He famously stood his ground in a development financing dispute with Larry Silverstein, who wanted the Authority to backstop financing for two office towers with no private tenants to speak of, a move that Ward argued would undermine the struggling Authority’s capital plan. At one point, Ward found himself in opposition to the combined might of Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver, Mayor Bloomberg and Silverstein. They ended up agreeing to backstop the financing of one tower, and only backstop the second if Silverstein raised some money on his own.

“I work three blocks from the World Trade Center site, and for the better part of nearly a decade, it foundered," Russianoff said. "Nothing happened there. He had the smarts and staying power to figure out how to make things move.”

ANDREW CUOMO, NEVER ONE TO ALLOW ANYONE else to dictate the pacing of a public storyline, has issued only ambiguous statements about Ward’s future.

“There are no plans to replace Chris Ward at this time,” said his spokesman Josh Vlasto, in a typical such statement, last week.

Few inhabitants of the New York political universe believe that to be true. In fact, most people with business before the agency seem to be working on the premise that Cuomo will sack Ward at some point following the tenth anniversary of September 11, and will do so with the full support of the New Jersey side of the agency, which is also said to have contentious relations with Ward.

In response to a request for comment for this article, Ward said, “I have the best job in New York City government, and I will continue to do it every single day."

It’s not unthinkable that Ward’s dismissal, or resignation, will be pushed back while the governor finds a suitable replacement for Walder. That replacement could actually end up coming from the same small pool of technocrats that would supply Ward’s replacement.

It’s also not entirely unimaginable that following the tenth anniversary of 9-11, and all of the attendant national and international press praising Ward’s stewardship of Ground Zero, that Cuomo will rethink his position on Ward.

But it's not likely. As another Albany lobbyist put it, "Ultimately, all of the key positions will be populated by Cuomo loyalists. That's just the way it works."