Ward Boss: He Resurrected Ground Zero, But Can Chris Ward Save Himself?

ground zero may 2008

Wardtopia, June 2011. (Port Authority)


When Chris Ward arrived at the Port Authority in May 2008, he had a single mandate from Governor Paterson: Fix the World Trade Center. Sure, he would be responsible for the airports and the ports and the bridges and tunnels. But the governor and his appointee knew that the biggest problem facing the agency, and in some ways the entire state, was the lack of progress at what was then still a pit. “We pulled the whole project apart and basically started from scratch,” Mr. Ward said.

“Everything does not have to get built at the same way at the same time,”he continued. “You set a goal and let the engineers work around that. Once they know what they are working towards, they can figure it out.”

Mr. Ward credits this approach with moving the project ahead of schedule in a number of ways. The memorial pavilion is now fully clad in glass, creating a far more inviting structure than the bare steel skeleton that was initially set out in the plans; previously the cladding would have come some time after the 10th anniversary. The Vehicle Screening Center, the security and circulatory system for the entire 16-acre site, which Mr. Ward calls “our new memorial” in terms of priorities and deadlines, is also three months ahead of schedule, and he hopes to add another three to six months to that.

Though he had been passed over by Governor Eliot Spitzer, Mr. Ward came to the Port Authority job with a reputation as something of an expert in navigating thorny public projects. In the 1980’s, he worked on energy projects for the Public Development Corporation. “One of Chris’s great strengths is knowing when to close a deal, when to not close a deal and the implications of a deal, especially in a complex, multilayered urban environment like New York,” said Carl Weisbrod, the founding president of the city’s Economic Development Corporation.

Mr. Weisbrod had hired Mr. Ward from PDC to handle the ports and airports on behalf of the city, and he points to his shrewdness in holding onto a lease renewal at LaGuardia. The Dinkins administration wanted it finished before the end of its term, but Mr. Ward convinced City Hall it was not finished and rushing would have negative consequences. “This was an area Chris did not know a lot about, either,” Mr. Weisbrod said. “He’s a very quick learner.”

The same could be said for his political skills. During his first stint at the Port Authority, when he served as chief of planning and external affairs from 1997 to 2002, Mr. Ward tackled the AirTrain, a longtime pipe dream without much popular support. “It was a very complex issue, lots of NIMBY politics around it and a swirling vortex of intrigue behind it—you know, the airlines opposing it and the FAA not entirely behind it, and the business community came out against it because they thought no one would use it,” said Bob Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association. But Mr. Ward managed to sway seven community boards and dozens of politicians and business leaders, and as a result, J.F.K. air traffic has—for better or worse—risen 46 percent since the AirTrain opened.

That breadth appears to have helped Mr. Ward with the less public mandates of the Port Authority job.

Plans are in the works to revamp the loathsome Port Authority bus terminal, and Mr. Ward is even considering a freight tunnel under the Hudson—a pet project of Congressman Nadler. He has expanded shipping capacity and begun dredging the harbor to accommodate new, bigger ships. He has been working to modernize all three airports with new terminals.

“I would say he’s probably the most effective director of aviation I’ve dealt with, and the most effective person over the Port Authority I’ve dealt with in recent memory,” Richard Anderson, the C.E.O. of Delta Air Lines, told The Observer. He praised Mr. Ward for realizing a $1.3 billion consolidation and expansion of Delta’s terminals at J.F.K. last year after two decades of false starts.

“Once the goal is set, he has great focus and is great at getting it done,” Mr. Anderson said.