The Exit Interview: Chris Ward

After a much-lauded term as the Executive Director of the Port Authority, Chris Ward was dispatched by Governor Andrew Cuomo last October. Since, he joined millions of Americans in the job hunt, fretted about not making the most of his empty days and sat down to talk with Reclaim about his past, the future and what advocates can do to make things better.

What have you been up to lately?

Today was actually my first day at my new job. I’m now an Executive Vice President at Dragados [a large international construction company]. Before that, well, I had these two months off, and it wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I didn’t have a job, so I was looking for a job, and I had other stuff to finish up, so I couldn’t really get away. And every day I’d say, “The gym, a book, that movie, I’ll cook dinner,” but I’d get about one thing done.

It sounds like you landed on your feet though. Do you think New York commuters will be as lucky? How bad are things with the Authorities?
Things are bad. The relationship between the MTA Capital Plan and its financial capacity and the Port Authority’s Capital Plan and its financial capacity are completely mismatched. There isn’t money to do much of anything beyond a state of good repair. I don’t want to be doom and gloom here, but there is a total mismatch.

What does that mean for regular New Yorkers?
Not much right now. It takes a long time to get back to the 1970s, but what people worry about is once you start on that road, you end the journey there. It’s funny: New Yorkers, being New Yorkers, are inured to tough dips in service and expectation. We’re OK with a dirty station or a leak in the roof at LaGuardia, but in other international capitals, that’d be completely unacceptable. Our fortitude can be a fault.

So what can we do to make it better?
Maybe a rider strike? I think it would be phenomenal if you could get everyone who rides the MTA to go on strike for a day. Three million riders is a potent political force. Obviously, people can’t afford to miss work, but maybe it’s a marker that they drop in a box. Something. We need to galvanize ridership around something other than fear of fare hikes and service cuts. We need to tell electeds that this is one of the most important things. We all rely on the trains and buses and bridges and tunnels everyday. And, trust me, they’re not free.

What we hear from elected officials is “the pocketbook, the pocketbook, the pocketbook,” and we never hear about what creates the quality of life. We only talk about transit and infrastructure in terms of taxes and tolls and the burden that elected officials are supposed to relieve people of, but all of that money goes somewhere. Every penny of it is used to make the city better for citizens and businesses. The tolls and the fares pay for a service that is very expensive. I know that’s hard for people to remember, but it shouldn’t be hard for elected officials.

Does that mean a new revenue stream? Congestion pricing, maybe?
Well, that thing got turned on it head in terms of race and class the last time. Somehow someone turned it into this thing where if you were against congestion pricing, you were protecting the working class and historically underserved minority communities, which is just absurd. I think the new political leadership showing up in this town can galvanize that very community. A struggling mom with two kids isn’t taking a taxi. She isn’t driving a private car into Manhattan. She’s taking the bus. Mass transit is mass. It’s for the people who can’t afford other options. There’s a strong political message in that.