Former P.A. head Chris Ward on the withering of New York transit and the bad politics of infrastructure funding

Subway on Manhattan Bridge, 1974. (U.S. National Archives, via flickr)
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On the eve of what has long promised to be a scathing audit of his management of the Port Authority, Chris Ward issued a series of dire pronouncements on the state of New York infrastructure and transit system.

"The M.T.A. is teetering on the brink of a capital bankruptcy that is more than just daunting," he said.

Any day now, Governors Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo, who have sought to diminish Ward's contributions to the redevelopment of Ground Zero in an apparent effort to present their own stewardship of the agency as comparatively efficient, will release what is expected to be a merciless accounting of Ward's otherwise well-regarded tenure as executive director of the Port Authority.

In what could be construed as a preemptive strike, Ward used the opportunity of a public forum at the New School of Public Engagement on Wednesday night to warn against a political environment in which discussion of infrastructure investment is considered to be inconvenient.

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The title of the panel discussion, which also featured appearances by architecture critic Paul Goldberger, developer Paul Travis and architect Dilip da Cunha, was "Looking forward from Ground Zero: The future of Lower Manhattan."

The first hour was spent in a genteel discussion of lower Manhattan before and after Sept. 11.  Then Ward, prompted by a question about the impact that climate change and the Occupy Wall Street movement might have on the downtown community, launched into a jeremiad on the state of infrastructure, and of civic discourse on infrastructure, in New York.

Ward said, "We are witnessing fundamentally the loss of the M.T.A. and the mass transit system as we speak."

Ward said that the aforementioned risk of capital bankruptcy at the state-controlled agency "potentially leaves Second Avenue Subway and East Side Access at risk. It leaves innumerable station modernizations completely at risk and offers, once the 7 train is done, it offers no new expansion at all of where we are with mass transit."

And it is that very same mass transit, said Ward, "which has created the density which has allowed the economy to thrive as much as it has."

Ward's former place of employment didn't fare much better in his remarks.

"The Port Authority, obviously near and dear to my heart, is facing probably anywhere from a $10 to $14 billion gap on the money that it has today and the things that it would like to build," he said.

"LaGuardia is crap and it is the entrance to New York City," Ward continued. "When it rains, it actually leaks."

Without adequate infrastructure, said Ward, "all of the shiniest, brightest towers that we can build with the perfect floorplates and the world of finance will just wither away from us."

"So at the same time that we talk about this bright future, there is not a civic dialogue which recognizes that this city was built on public works projects, and if they fail in this generation, now that they are all effectively 100 years old, all of those forecasts for a bright future are going to be lost."

By his lights, what the civic dialogue is missing is the acknowledgment that the government must reinvest in infrastructure.

"We continually think that we can do more with less, that there is a way to somehow cut government costs, which frees up something that doesn't exist, which can automatically pay for things that we now cannot afford," he said. "You cannot cut government to build one more thing of any substance in this city that’s going to change the dynamic that we have."

Climate change and rising sea levels, said Ward, will only make a bad situation worse.

"You’re going to see sea level rise throughout the city," said Ward. "You're gonna see storm surge levels throughout the city. They’re going to further threaten that very infrastructure that i just referenced."

"There are subway stations that are below sea level, there are combined sewer overflow systems that are below sea level. Today, without any changes, you have wastewater treatment plants that are basically at sea level today."

If only congestion pricing had gone through, he lamented, and New York would at least have a source of funding to pay for some of these things.

"The mayor’s fundamental point of tolling the East River bridges is such a logical thing for regional transportation, for congestion and environmental planning. Why should someone who’s leaving Staten Island pay $10 to go over the Verrazano and come into Midtown Manhattan? At the same time someone who’s leaving Brooklyn or Queens can drive into the city in the peak period of time and not pay a toll."

"And what happened?" he continued. "We took a very good progressive idea to build infrastructure, and we allowed class and race to turn it on its head. And that we allowed people to say that if you put tolls on bridges you are hurting the working class, you are hurting minority communities, and you are hurting that fabric of New York. And you could find nothing further from the truth. When the funding of congestion pricing was to rebuild the mass transit system which people who are poor, from minority communities that have been dispossessed in terms of their abilities to get to work, that was the funding to create economic equality in terms of transportation."