The Port Authority’s Philosopher-King Talks Green Transportation
We first met Chris Ward when he headed the General Contractor's Association during the battle for congestion pricing. In June 2008, he was appointed Executive Director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and has spent the past year negotiating political mine fields like development at the World Trade Center site and Access to the Region's Core (ARC), all amid a downward economic spiral. T.A. sat down with Mr. Ward to talk about the Port Authority's transformation under his tenure, and his agency's role in greening New York City streets.
We hear a lot what the Port Authority does in terms of public transit? What is the PA working on for bicycles?
Historically, the Port Authority has not recognized for a variety of our assets that bicycling is increasingly part of the fabric of the city, from a safety perspective, from a transportation perspective, or just a customer service perspective.
You see bicyclists as PA customers?
Customer service is a shop-worn term but it's about how people integrate their lives into what the Port Authority is doing every day, from incredibly complicated things like airports to fairly simple things like how do you get across the George Washington Bridge if you are a bicyclist who is commuting.
Have you thought about opening the doors to cyclists at the future WTC, making it an iconic, bike-friendly building?
To be perfectly candid, no. That doesn't mean it can't be. I'm glad you brought it up. We are in the interior design phase of that project and we should definitely talk about it. Think about the west side and the Hudson River Park, and the amount of people that will be working there once that becomes the new downtown. I think [bicycling] becomes a major mode of commuting.
What else about Downtown transportation is on your mind?
When they open East River Park and all those Chinatown buses are no longer allowed to be stored [under the FDR], they're going to go somewhere. When we open Downtown and the 9/11 Memorial and there are tourists taking bus trips there, that's going be huge. How we're then going to manage all of these buses in a rational way is going be a major environmental and transportation question that has to be solved. It's really a prescient problem.
So your world is increasingly buses, buses, buses?
People don't intuitively think of the bus network as part of mass transit. But 65% of weekday trans-Hudson commuters are coming in by bus. That is a huge system that is operating in the 1950s.
What does that mean for the streets your buses utilize?
Janette [from the DOT], Rich Sarles from New Jersey Transit and I have started to really focus on this question together. The queuing situation on 10th Avenue and then on 9th is reaching a level of proportion that's just unacceptable. The buses are queuing from 42nd all the way down to the high 20s. There's just a wall of buses. All of this is part of a moving puzzle everyday; Janette does Broadway and Times Square, and we have to think about the impact on 9th Avenue which means how we route buses. When downtown gets built, the amount of bus traffic is going to take a lot of serious planning and resources. You're probably going to have to build another bus garage downtown.
Does the PA have much of a say in street design near its assets?
People perceive us as this autocratic agency that can just do what it wants. We really don't. We try to be very careful about not looking like we are the ones who should be deciding pedestrian issues in and around the bus terminals. But we work closely with City Planning and the DOT on those issues.
Where is the sustainability agenda in all this?
You are seeing the benefit of a generational transformation of the country. There is a certain economic inevitability that was denied but that is finally being realized. As much as some people try and deny it, it's part of the embedded fabric of almost every decision that gets made and you see the economic consequences of companies that don't realize that change and end up going broke because of it.
What did you learn in the push for congestion pricing at General Contractors?
You are only going to get it if you do it smartly and incrementally. As you saw, you are not going be able to do this in one fell swoop.
How far do we have to go before pricing becomes a reality?
I think the lesson learned was that you needed to have a much more honed political message for overcoming the perception that money disappears into government never to be spent.
A lot of opposition to congestion pricing focused on New Jersey, and the need to integrate their commuters into the plan. Do you think it's time to talk about regional road pricing?
The rational mind would say, yes, that is where we are heading. I think we need to be realistic and begin to understand that there are going to be some interim steps of integration versus full regional coordination. The region clearly has to change the paradigm for financing and maintaining transportation projects. Whether it is New Jersey Transit, the MTA or the PATH system, there needs to be some regional capacity to fund those projects which is going to come from tolls, congestion pricing, fares and fees.
How is the PA holding the line with its finances when so many transit agencies like the MTA are in much more difficult straits?
Unlike the MTA, we can't get into back-end debt financing. Every ten years when we do a capital plan, we size it to what our financial capacity is. We don't do projects unless we have the financial capacity, so we don't overextend ourselves and then either get into a bad debt situation or add skyrocketing fares or tolls. One thing that's changing that dramatically is the cost of rebuilding downtown. That's $12 billion worth of public infrastructure at a time when you would want that $12 billion for all sorts of other projects.
So you still have faith that road pricing can work to finance transit and reduce congestion?
People are very smart; they make smart economic decisions when they have to make them, and the idea that people can't or don't adapt is something to play off of. People are not just stuck with one paradigm and that paradigm to travel can change really dramatically.
You have a Master's Degree in Divinity from Harvard. Any lessons from there that you took with you to the PA?
I'm probably the biggest non-believer in terms of religion. If you are not going to believe in God you have to be smarter than the people who do, because you have to answer tougher questions about why you don't. It taught me an analytic ability to look at problems and be fairly rigorous about what the decisions that you've made are based on.