Once a week since 2002, an all-weather digital camera affixed to the top floor of the 41-story 1 World Financial Center has taken a snapshot of the World Trade Center site, capturing its progress from pit to office park. In Chris Ward’s office, on the 15th floor of 225 Park Avenue South, hangs one such photo from May 2008, when Mr. Ward was appointed by Governor David Paterson to run the Port Authority, the sprawling bistate agency charged with overseeing the Hudson River crossings, the docks and airports and bus terminals on both sides, and the World Trade Center. In the photo, the site looks as it had for years—little more than dirt and ramps, with concrete and steel poking out of the earth here and there. Above it hangs another photo—swapped out each week by Mr. Ward—that shows how far the project has come.
This week, the photo is of a nearly completed memorial plaza, the ghostly square fountains lined with black granite and surrounded by saplings, with 1 World Trade Center rising 68 stories to the right, Tower Four beginning to blossom and the foundations of two larger siblings noticeably underway. Facing the two pictures in the corner is a black-and-white portrait of Austin Tobin, the unsung Robert Moses contemporary who likewise ruled the Port Authority for decades. He seems to be smiling on the work of Ward.
“There’s a real point of pride there, watching one of your projects get built,” Mr. Ward said in an hour-long interview on Monday afternoon. How much longer Mr. Ward will be rotating pictures remains unclear.
When he was reappointed at the end of January, after the inauguration of Governor Andrew Cuomo, it was a slight surprise even to him. A phone call from the administration came only hours before the official announcement was made.
The agency’s executive director is a gubernatorial appointee, and the prevailing assumption since Mr. Cuomo’s election has been that—regardless of Mr. Ward’s success—his days were numbered. That assumption finally found its way into print last month when the New York Post reported—according to unnamed Port Authority and administration sources—that Mr. Ward would be dismissed shortly after the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
“There are no plans to replace him at this time,” Cuomo spokesman Josh Vlasto told The Observer.
It is the first time they have made such a public endorsement since the reappointment, and still it does not comfort Mr. Ward’s suporters. “He’s done the job, and he’s done the job very well,” said Jerrold Nadler, the longtime congressman who represents the World Trade Center site. “He solved the problems. If you’re the New York governor, or even the New Jersey governor, it’s a great thing you don’t have a mess on your hands.”
As he does with his construction projects, Mr. Ward brings a sense of realism to his fate. “I serve at the pleasure of the governor,” he said. “I don’t have a contract. You never do. You come to work every day and do the best job, and that’s what gets me here, because I love it.
“Could I have been gone when David Paterson was governor? I could have been gone. Could I be gone when Andrew Cuomo is governor? I could be gone. That’s the nature of this job. Governor Cuomo appointed me at the start of this year, and I’m doing the best job I can for as long as I can.”
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.