On April 10, Christopher Ward was sitting in his midtown office when he got an unexpected phone call late in the afternoon. On the line was a mutual friend of Governor David Paterson’s top aide, Charles O’Byrne, calling with an unusual question.
“He just said, ‘Are you bored?’ And I said, ‘You’re not asking me as my psychiatrist—what are you asking me?’” Mr. Ward, 53, recounted. “He said, ‘They’re going to make a change at the Port Authority, and they’re very, very interested in you.’”
Mr. Ward, the managing director of the General Contractors Association of New York, did not need much convincing.
A few interviews and a background check later, and he was named the governor’s choice as the new executive director of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, a job for which he was passed over by Eliot Spitzer a year and a half earlier.
In nominating Mr. Ward—who is expected to be approved by the agency’s board of commissioners later this month—Mr. Paterson is going with a man widely regarded as a seasoned public servant who can breathe life into controversial and complicated public projects, lifting them off the drawing boards.
What Mr. Ward’s appointment is not, his supporters and critics agree, is one of political patronage—the kind that typified the top Port Authority job in recent years (Governor Pataki’s first Port Authority director, George Marlin, was a leader of the Conservative Party and once a candidate for New York City mayor). Apparently, Mr. Paterson, a governor with virtually no mandate from the voting public, resisted such a temptation, defying the many Albany operatives and observers who assumed the former Senate minority leader would be repaying favors with top appointments.
“There was a stereotype view that because he came out of the Democratic political organization, that he would favor the appointment of political operatives who had been starved under Pataki,” said Kathryn Wylde, CEO of the Partnership for New York City.
The reality seems to have been the opposite—Ms. Wylde praised Mr. Ward, calling him “a very hands-on, accessible leader”—as Mr. Paterson appears eager to make the Port Authority an integral part of his agenda for his abridged gubernatorial term.
Last week, Mr. Paterson said he would likely put one of his priority economic development projects, Moynihan Station, under the purview of the Port Authority. Tack onto that the billions in construction at the World Trade Center; a more than $7 billion new rail tunnel under the Hudson River; a new office tower atop a revamped Port Authority Bus Terminal; and management over the region’s four airports, and the agency’s impact on the New York City area becomes more apparent.
“I think the regional economy is driven by delivering the Port Authority’s infrastructure projects in a cost-effective way, and without them, the regional economy falters,” said Mr. Ward, who worked at the Port Authority under Governor Pataki before taking a job as commissioner of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection.
His directive from Mr. Paterson, as he understands it, is to provide “a real sense of mission and delivery,” he said. “The Port Authority is best served when it has a clear direction and goals to be had, and that is what I think the governor is looking for.”
To do so successfully, and to deliver on the enormous, often underfunded developments on his plate, is sure to be no easy task.
MANY OF THE projects at the World Trade Center site risk being woefully late and overbudget, such as the Santiago Calatrava-designed PATH station; and the Moynihan Station plan has failed to see a groundbreaking throughout the 15-plus years of its existence. The Port Authority also has a reputation among critics of being sluggish, heavily bureaucratic, and prone to the swings of a tug of war between the state legislatures of New Jersey and New York.