Foye says an era of lowballing public-works costs and overpaying ‘starchitects’ is over

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Pat Foye. (Dan Rosenblum)
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Even as the organization he heads is planning to spend $30 billion on capital projects, Port Authority executive director Patrick Foye said the public is no longer willing to take government agencies at their word about how much it costs to build things.

“The public has largely lost confidence in cost estimates and schedule estimates for large public works, and credibility has to be rebuilt," Foye said, speaking last week at a Council for Urban Real Estate forum. "Frankly, the old bureaucratic tactic of obtaining approval for a project by announcing a total estimated cost to complete that the public sponsor knows is understated—that’s an endangered species.”

Foye said public agencies risked backlash from “vanity projects” that don’t deliver appropriate returns.

“As Governor Cuomo has said, the public sector must be accountable and transparent to the public," said Foye, a Cuomo appointee. "Multi-billion-dollar projects by starchitects that don’t yield a substantial social return equivalent to the amounts invested don’t cut it anymore."

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The authority is currently dealing with cost overruns at the World Trade Center and the necessity of raising PATH fares and Hudson River-crossing tolls. The governors in charge of the Port Authority, Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie, have sought to place the blame for those runaway costs on Foye's predecessor, Chris Ward, and have declared their intention to rein in spending. 

Foye cited as a better way of doing things Cuomo’s “NY Works” economic development plan and “tax-increment financing,” used to fund projects based on future tax projections. He also talked about the benefits of public-private partnerships, which will become more central to the Port Authority’s developments over the next few years. Foye mentioned three projects—modernized terminals at LaGuardia Airport and Newark Liberty International Airport as well as the Goethals Bridge replacement—as examples of the new approach.

Foye said an R.F.I. to rebuild the LaGuardia Terminal brought 15 responses involving approximately 50 financial, design, airport and engineering companies. 

All told, he said the authority has $30 billion invested in their ten-year capital plan which includes 900 projects of different sizes. Those include $5.8 billion in improvements to LaGuardia and JFK airports, at least $1 billion to replace the suspension cables on the George Washington Bridge and $1 billion for modernizing the PATH system.

At the same time, the Port Authority will sell assets such as a waste-to-energy plant in Essex County, New Jersey, and possibly the Staten Island Teleport.

Responding to an audience question about reaching out to the public, Foye said the authority has given the public more access to the agency’s records, including posting 22,000 pages of documents online as well as becoming “a lot more responsive and a lot quicker in responding to FOIL requests.”

On the way out, Foye talked to a reporter about the Port Authority and developer Durst Organization’s decision to get rid of ornamentation on the spire of One World Trade Center, sparking a dispute about its future status as the tallest building in America.

“What was designed was impractical, unworkable and quite frankly dangerous to workers who would have to be called in to maintain it, and that’s not something we nor Durst could abide,” he said.

Foye said they would make their case to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, which arbitrates official building heights.

“I think this whole discussion is making a molehill out of a mountain,” he said.