Port Authority officials answer questions on a Christie-Cuomo audit, but say little

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Samson, Rechler and Foye (Dana Rubinstein)
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A special committee charged by Governors Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie with auditing the Port Authority released its findings on Tuesday, and declined an opportunity to explain those findings today. 

The governors ordered the audit as they were engaged in a dispute with the authority's outgoing executive director, Chris Ward, who is generally well-respected but was clearly viewed as a political nuisance by Cuomo and Christie. Even before the auditors began their work, a report leaked that the audit would discover massive overspending by the authority under Ward's leadership, particularly on the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site.

In the end, the quietly released audit did find that the authority's exposure had in many cases exceeded original estimates, but its conclusions about the causes of the overspending were vague.

So was the methodology.

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Today, for example, the Port said that the cost of ensuring that the September 11 Memorial was open by the tenth anniversary of the attacks cost some $500 million.

But in a reporters gaggle following a Port Authority board meeting today at their Park Avenue South headquarters, a commissioner declined to elaborate on how that number was calculated. Also, the auditors who apparently arrived at that figure failed to consult with either the city, whose mayor chairs the board of the museum, or the museum itself, on the validity of those numbers, according to a city official and a source familiar with the auditing process.

"They were successful in completing the mission," said Scott Rechler, the authority's vice chairman, referring to the opening of the September 11 Memorial, during a question-and-answer session preceding the board meeting. "It was a great day for the city, for the state, for the nation. Now what we’re doing is taking a step back and saying, 'What was the cost of meeting that objective? What was the cost of being successful?'"

Asked for a breakdown of the $500 million number following the board meeting, Rechler referred the questioner back to the "tables in the report," which don't provide a breakdown.

Cuomo and Christie, who appoint the people who run the bistate entity, ordered the top-to-bottom review of the authority's operations and capital plan on the heels of the uproar surrounding this summer's toll and fare hikes.

The auditors who won the $2 million contract to conduct the study emphasized the role that expenditures on behalf of “third parties” played in raising the cost of the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site to nearly $15 billion. In particular, the auditors at Navigant, a consulting firm, pointed to the move to complete the Septmber 11 Memorial in time for the attacks’ tenth anniversary as a significant source of cost overruns. 

“From June to November 2008, the Port Authority conducted a comprehensive analysis to determine what the true scope and design of the WTC Program was expected to be, including the related impact of the mandate to complete the Memorial by September 11, 2011,” reads the audit. “As a result of this effort, the Port Authority was required to materially alter the phasing of construction, redesign major elements of the WTC program resulting in an increase in cost, as well as balance the needs of a variety of disparate functions and stakeholders (both public and private).”  

The authority is involved in a dispute with the Bloomberg administration over some $300 million in funding for the memorial, and yesterday, the mayor said he had no idea where the authority's numbers came from.

The audit also said an accurate and comprehensive appraisal of the World Trade Center redevelopment would put its cost at nearly $15 billion, compared to the $11 billion number released in 2008 following a different administration's recalibration.

Today, the commissioners said part of the cause of the cost overruns was a lack of transparency on the part of the authority, and promised to do better moving forward.

"One issue that of great importance to the board, and which we’ve heard something about today, is the issue of transparency," said authority chairman David Samson, a Christie appointee, during the board meeting. "We are all as a board, all of us, committed to increasing the level of transparency in the way this agency operates."