As the local representative for Manhattan and one of the most powerful people in state government, Sheldon Silver quite often gets his way with regard to decisions downtown. So it was a bit surprising today to hear Mr. Silver, at a rare Assembly hearing that he convened and led, call for new third-party oversight at the World Trade Center rebuilding project, only to be (politely) rebuffed by the Port Authority, which owns the site.
Speaking in an Assembly hearing room at 250 Broadway in Lower Manhattan, Mr. Silver suggested to Chris Ward, the Port Authority’s executive director, that the project was in need of an independent party that could monitor the timelines and construction at the site, so as to bring attention to any delays or inter-agency problems.
Mr. Ward did not seem intrigued by the suggestion, saying that the redevelopment is “one of the most transparent projects in the region.”
“Your clear answer is, you’re not interested in independent oversight?” Mr. Silver asked back.
“That’s my clear answer,” Mr. Ward responded.
After taking a few questions from reporters in a crowded hallway, Mr. Ward headed to the elevators. Minutes later, he was implicitly called dishonest by Larry Silverstein, the developer building three of the towers at the World Trade Center. Mr. Silverstein, in testimony, suggested Mr. Ward was greatly exaggerating the extent of back-and-forth between all the stakeholders, and Mr. Silverstein said he had not been invited to large stakeholder meetings since Labor Day.
Mr. Silver’s plan comes in response to what officials felt was a distinct lack of candor by the Port Authority, as until Mr. Ward arrived last year, the agency did not go public with the substantial delays and cost problems at the site. A city/state agency, the Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center, presented a confidential report of its own in early 2007 (with numerous follow-up evaluations since) that showed risk of massive delays. The findings of the report took well over a year before they began to become public.
Mr. Ward’s “description of regularly held meetings did not jive with my impression of what was in fact happening,” Mr. Silverstein said. “Our representatives regularly asked for information, and the degree of information that’s supplied is but a fraction of the information that we have regularly and continually asked for.”
Mr. Silver seemed to be envisioning a similar structure that would monitor construction progress, not just trusting the Port Authority (a bi-state agency that avoids certain New York-specific transparency laws) to be open and honest.
Mr. Silver said that an independent monitor would allow for a structure where “somebody, if nothing else, can call attention to the fact that somewhere, somehow, somebody is delayed. If we had that in 2003 and 2004, to tell the world things were unrealistic, perhaps some agencies would have responded.”
If the Port Authority does not put aside money itself to contract out such review, Mr. Silver said he had other options, such as appropriating money to the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (an agency favored by Mr. Silver, but one Mayor Bloomberg says is redundant and should be shuttered) or the LMCCC.
In a statement, a Port Authority spokeswoman said there was “a substantial and appropriate amount of oversight” at the site.
Update 4:20 p.m.:
The Port Authority sent over this response to Mr. Silverstein’s charges:
-FTA: The Port Authority works with and meets with the FTA weekly on oversight and coordinaton efforts of the Transportion Hub and the VSC.
-LMCCC: The Port Authority works with the LMCCC weekly on the coordination of construction efforts on the site . Attendees include the PA, SPI, DOT and other various state and city agencies.
-Integrity monitor: The Port Authority has an independent integrity monitor that monitors contracts, fraud preventions, timeframes, contract expectations, and deliverables.
– The Port Authority meets weekly with SPI and Memorial Foundation staff on projects and bi-weekly with high-level SPI staff.
-Additionally, the Port authority publishes its interim milestone goals and reports, which are available at www. wtcprogress.com."