The Port Authority used to set records in good ways. The George Washington Bridge was a marvel of engineering in its day, the world’s longest bridge when it was built, and still the busiest. The Port Authority Bus Terminal, opened in 1950, is to this day the largest on earth by passenger volume.
But today, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey doesn’t brag about the records it sets. One World Trade Center, born the Freedom Tower and taken over by the Port in 2006, will be the most expensive office building in the world. The “Vehicle Security Center,” an underground tour bus garage and road network serving the World Trade Center complex, may very well be the most expensive parking garage in history.
And then there’s the PATH station to New Jersey, the most troubled project at one of the world’s most troubled construction sites. At $3.74 billion, plus another $200 million in contingencies, the “Transportation Hub” at the World Trade Center—not even the busiest station in the Financial District—will be far and away the most expensive train station built in modern history.
The Hub, as it’s known in Port Authority speak, will be the crowning artistic statement of the World Trade Center complex, perhaps the last grand gesture at a site that was supposed to be full of them. “Let me draw for you what I cannot say,” its architect, Santiago Calatrava, said at the unveiling in 2004. Then, wrote Newsweek, “he fluently sketched a child releasing a bird—a spellbinding image that had inspired his design.”
When the grandiose ambitions and the emotions of 9/11 met with the famously flush Port Authority, disaster struck. Mission creep, an inattentive governor and extreme politicization sent costs skyward, eventually outstripping even the record-setting resources devoted to it. Its wings had to be stilled and its supports thickened, the bird in flight devolving into an immobilized stegosaurus. The world’s most expensive train station, it seems, was not expensive enough to contain all of New York’s dreams.
For nearly $4 billion, most cities could build entire subway lines. Even the MTA, which frequently breaks cost records of its own, managed to build its Fulton Center hub, a renovation of five densely tangled lines, for $1.4 billion. Nobody’s subway tunnels cost more than the MTA’s, but even they could fund most of the second phase of the Second Avenue subway, from 96th Street to 125th, with that kind of cash.
The World Trade Center PATH station is actually not a particularly busy one. “No one intelligently could say that the level of design and architecture associated with it was commensurate with the level of usage,” said one former commissioner. (Like nearly everyone we interviewed for this story, he would only speak on the condition of anonymity.)
The Port Authority likes to play up the significance of the station by calling it Manhattan’s third-largest transit hub. That’s a tenuous claim at best. Were the PATH system to be integrated into the New York City subway (no, nearly $4 billion does not buy a free transfer to the subway), the World Trade Center stop would barely crack the top 10 busiest stations.
With its contribution to the project, which was supposed to cost it virtually nothing, ballooning to nearly $1 billion, the Port Authority now finds itself unable to fund the sorts of regional transportation projects that have traditionally justified its existence.
In 2009, to pay for ballooning World Trade Center costs, the Port cut $5 billion from its 10-year capital plan. That pleased the bond markets temporarily as Moody’s upgraded the Port Authority’s bond rating the next year, only to knock it down again in 2012 due to still-increasing World Trade Center costs and the fear that the Port’s seemingly limitless ability to raise bridge and tunnel tolls may in fact be limited.
From the proposed ARC rail tunnel beneath the Hudson into Midtown (canceled by Chris Christie in 2010) and an extension of the PATH train to Newark Liberty International Airport (at a cost of around $500 million) to a thorough renovation of La Guardia Airport ($1 billion in capital funding was cut in 2009), the region has needs, and the Port Authority is struggling to fund them.
Any discussion of the cost of the Hub must start with Santiago Calatrava. He was given the job just two years after the attacks, when emotions were running high and George Pataki was eyeing a presidential bid. A starchitect of the highest order, Mr. Calatrava was known for his complex feats of engineering in fashioning soaring, animalistic structures, with a specialty in public works projects.
The architecture critics were smitten. The design, The New York Times’s architecture critic Herbert Muschamp wrote, “should satisfy those who believe that buildings planned for ground zero must aspire to a spiritual dimension,” and he hoped that New Yorkers would detect the “metaphysical element” in Mr. Calatrava’s work. His design was supposed to spur development throughout the neighborhood and lead lower Manhattan, still reeling from the attacks, out of its malaise. To the extent that the critics were worried, it was about how it would fit in with the architectural context of the site, not its cost.
Mr. Calatrava would eventually become to be remembered with regret among those in his hometown of Valencia, where his City of Arts and Sciences ended up costing more than three times its initial $400 million budget. But at the time, Mr. Calatrava could do no wrong.
In New York, his starting point was far higher than it had been in Valencia. The Federal Transit Administration pledged $1.9 billion for the project early on, and the Port Authority would throw in another few hundred million—a number that would climb much higher. (The feds, acting as enablers to the Port’s profligacy, ended up quietly throwing in another billion dollars to cover some of the cost overruns.)
But at this point, years before construction was to start, the project was, as one former Port Authority commissioner put it, “proposed to get an expansive federal grant at a point in time when nobody really knew what it would cost in its entirety.”
The feds were supposed to pay for nearly the whole thing, and the number was more of a placeholder. The fate of the site was still in jeopardy—Silverstein Properties (which had signed a lease for the site just months before the 2001 attacks) and the Port Authority were still fighting over who would build what, the tower designs hadn’t been finalized and security issues hadn’t been thought through. The Port Authority didn’t have a good grip on what the project would entail—a spokesman told The Observer that the initial estimates for the Hub were “unrealistic.”
Of the nearly $4 billion eventually budgeted for the Hub, a fair amount—the Port Authority has never clearly broken down the costs for the public, but the number likely has 10 digits—went toward common infrastructure that, in any other project without the emotions and political backing of the World Trade Center site, might not have passed the FTA’s muster.
There was $75 million, for example, that was spent to build a deck over the Hub to support the memorial. Another few hundred million are going to infrastructure costs on Greenwich Street with only a tenuous connection to the Hub.
The site, shared among various public and private entities and budgets, includes a lot of common infrastructure that appears to have been disproportionately billed to the Port Authority. The Hub is shouldering significant costs in rebuilding the site’s foundation, and it is also building a web of pedestrian passageways leading from the Hub to the private office towers on the site and across West Street to Brookfield Properties’ World Financial Center.
To win these concessions, Larry Silverstein took advantage of the Port Authority’s eagerness to show some progress on the site. He played hardball with the government from 2004 to 2006, a period of acrimonious negotiations between Silverstein Properties and the Port Authority over who would be responsible for what aspects of the site.
His lobbyists were the best of the best. He hired Global Strategy Group, whose clients have included Eliot Spitzer, David Paterson and Andrew Cuomo, to lobby for him, along with David Samson, who would go on to become the chairman of the Port Authority.
Given the choice between making Larry Silverstein pay his way and trying to get the site finished as quickly as possible, the Port chose the more expensive option. (Whether it worked is debatable—3 World Trade Center is a stump, and 2 World Trade Center is nonexistent; both are awaiting tenants to restart construction, with delivery now slated for 2015 and 2016.) The feds were throwing even more money at the Port Authority—nearly $2.9 billion—and it was the path of least resistance.
After responsibility for the site was ironed out, there was one last chance to bring the Transportation Hub’s cost back down to earth. George Pataki had promised the moon during his years in office, but Eliot Spitzer and his Port Authority chief, Anthony Shorris, wanted to keep the project within its budget.
Mr. Spitzer took a more business-minded approach to the Transportation Hub than Mr. Pataki. “The best way to explain the cost of downtown was the opportunity cost—what was not done because you had to do that?” said Mr. Spitzer in a telephone interview with The Observer. “Do you do Calatrava, or do you do the rebuild of Penn Station? That’s the way I forced us to think about it.”
His pick for executive director of the Port Authority was Anthony Shorris, who spent most of the ’80s as Ed Koch’s deputy budget director and finance commissioner and the early ’90s as the Port Authority’s first deputy executive director.
The public hadn’t yet been clued in, but costs were spiraling out of control. Working with Steven Plate, the director for World Trade Center construction at the Port, Mr. Shorris set to work on a plan that, he thought, would keep the project within its budget, which at the time topped out at around $2.5 billion, without the Port Authority having to contribute $1 billion of its own money. “I was determined not to severely diminish the Port Authority’s capacity because of the World Trade Center,” Mr. Shorris told The Observer.
Mr. Shorris wanted to strip the concourse and platforms of the most expensive Calatrava-designed elements and make use of more of the existing PATH infrastructure that had been serving commuters for a decade.
He told The New York Times in April of 2008 that he would put the full-fat project out to bid, but that “we want to make sure we have that alternative in place that does price out at $2.5 billion, so we know that we have an option to go to.”
But that was the last the public heard of Mr. Shorris’s ideas to keep the Transportation Hub within its budget. Eliot Spitzer resigned less than a month later, and Mr. Shorris resigned several days after that.
When David Paterson took office, he hired Christopher Ward to head the Port Authority. Where Mr. Shorris planned and consulted, Mr. Ward built. The Daily News, at the end of his tenure, called him a guy who “got things done,” but rapid progress came at a price.
Decisions under Mr. Paterson’s watch, said one former commissioner, “were really very heavily driven by the optics.” It was seven years after the attacks, and nothing on the site had even started to rise from the ground—an embarrassment to New York City. Mr. Paterson, who would not comment for this article, wanted tangible signs of success, said several sources close to the project, and he was less concerned than Mr. Spitzer about the financial hit to the Port Authority.
“Candidly,” said one former commissioner, Mr. Ward “was building it for you guys”—i.e., the press. New York’s media lambasted both the skyrocketing costs and cascading delays at the project, but it cheered Chris Ward for fast-tracking construction.
With the World Trade Center memorial sitting partly on top of the Transportation Hub, the logical order of construction was to finish the Hub first, and then worry about the at-grade memorial elements. Mr. Paterson’s command to Chris Ward to “get this fucking memorial open by 9/11”—the 10th anniversary of the attacks—meant the order of construction had to be reversed, with a deck built over the unfinished Hub to support the weight of the memorial.
Aside from his order to finish the memorial by the September 11, 2011, David Paterson was by most accounts not terribly concerned with how much it would all cost, or indeed with the World Trade Center site much at all. “We got lots of visits from Spitzer’s guys and Pataki’s guys,” said one former commissioner, “but I don’t believe we ever got any visit from Paterson’s.”
The hard costs of rushing the memorial were not significant in the context of a project measured in the billions of dollars—only $75 million, according to Port Authority documents—but the shift in focus from cutting costs to hurrying construction meant that Mr. Shorris’s value engineering of the below-grade elements, from which the majority of project costs would come, largely went out the window.
The Port Authority under David Paterson and Chris Ward did make some cuts to the design, including, notably, the now-infamous devolution of the light bird into a heavy stegosaurus. But the majority of Mr. Calatrava’s elaborate underground designs, throughout the web of passageways and retail space, were retained. The cost is now closing in on $4 billion, and Mr. Shorris’s more ambitious plan to keep it within its budget died a quiet death.
In the private sector, these things often turn out differently. Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn is one example. Despite Bruce Ratner’s “man crush” on Frank Gehry, in the words of one of his employees, and the nearly $100 million in fees that he paid for the design of the undulating apartment towers and stadium, Mr. Ratner didn’t hesitate to drop the starchitect from Atlantic Yards when the costs got too high—costs that were partly the result of Mr. Gehry’s insistence on designing the interior elements down to minute details like the stadium seats, something that should sound familiar to the Port Authority.
As an independent authority without access to the treasures of New York and New Jersey, the Port Authority is somewhat insulated from criticism and oversight. Its money comes from the cars that stream through its bridges and tunnels—the George Washington Bridge, with its $13 cash toll, is its biggest moneymaker, bringing in around half a billion a year. Its costs are hidden not only from the users of the World Trade Center buildings and Transportation Hub, but also from legislators in New York and New Jersey.
In its early years, the Port exerted its freedom from political pressure and acted independently of the governors. But decades later, it’s turned into something else entirely. Too juicy a target to remain autonomous, the Port Authority has devolved into a sort of slush fund for the governors of New York and New Jersey, its revenues out of reach of the states’ legislatures.
And then there’s the question of whether the Hub will have the intended uplifting effect on development in the Financial District. Office leasing is weak across the whole city, and there are huge vacancies in the towers that are going up (while half of them are not). Already chock full of architectural landmarks, the Financial District isn’t Valencia or Bilbao; it doesn’t need a monument to put it on the map.
Despite the staggering cost increases, some at the Port Authority—even those highly critical of the project’s cost—see it ultimately as a success. “At the end of the day,” said one former commissioner, “we didn’t fail—it got built.” (“It’s getting built” would be more accurate; the Hub is just now starting to rise above ground level and isn’t scheduled to open for at least another two years.)
These low expectations are a testament to the tremendous failings of the project—that the world’s most expensive train station, at nearly twice its initial budget despite design cutbacks, can be viewed in any light as a success.
Maybe, some years into the future (the Port Authority says two and a half), with tens of thousands of commuters from New Jersey pouring out from beneath the wings of Mr. Calatrava’s would-be concrete and glass bird, nobody will remember the cost.
But every time they can’t get a seat on a PATH train at 2 a.m., or get held up by delays in the 100-year-old North River Tunnels to Midtown, or emerge from a decrepit La Guardia Airport, they’ll have the Transportation Hub and other World Trade Center projects to thank.