Chris Ward Responds to Port Authority Audit and New Role as Dragados Exec
Jotham Sederstrom Feb. 14, 2012, 12:02 p.m.
It’s the day after the Port Authority released an audit of the agency and Chris Ward is sitting calmly in his new office above Bryant Park.
Coming off of more than three years as its top New York executive, Mr. Ward has no illusions how the bi-state agency is run.
The audit last week cited mismanagement at the Port Authority and spiraling costs at the World Trade Center site, findings that aren’t exactly revelatory. Swelling budgets have been a long-running problem at the complex site and criticisms have been lobbed before at the sprawling agency’s byzantine structure.
To the politically cynical, the findings were a way for governors Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie to distance themselves from the inevitable overruns at the World Trade Center site as well as the unpopular toll and fare hike last year by the agency early in their tenures.
One thing is immediately clear: It won’t impact the consensus on Mr. Ward’s time at the Port Authority, which is widely hailed as one of the key reasons behind the progress at the WTC site.
“Government has to reinvent itself all the time,” Mr. Ward said. “Good for them for raising questions about the Port Authority. All I can say is, imagine what the audit would be, what the conclusions would be if the world looked at the site on the 10th year anniversary and it wasn’t complete and President Obama was working his way through an incomplete site and the families were there and it’s been 10 years and the memorial was not done.”
Such is the contradictory and sometimes absurd nature of public service, where memory of the overwhelming mandates Mr. Ward and his colleagues at the authority faced when he stepped in as executive director in 2008 can give way to scrutiny over the evasive actions they were forced to take. Building in the expeditious manner that was required to get the memorial done in time for its big moment in the national eye was more expensive. But in the pressured years leading up to anniversary, who among both the government and public would have been willing to accept failure to meet the deadline in exchange for cost savings?
“The alternative was incredibly worse,” Mr. Ward said. “From 2008 to 2011 we completed the memorial, we solved the Larry Silverstein issues, we signed Condé and did a deal to have the Dursts invest $100 million into the building. And the site now has all of this progressive momentum. In 2008 people thought the project would never get built. Now it’s a done deal.
“I think you have to be a little perverse to enjoy major league public service,” Mr. Ward added with a smile.
And yet one can sense that Mr. Ward also misses the thrill of being one of the top transit and infrastructure officials in the country. During his time at the authority, Mr. Ward, wearing his trademark designer eyeglasses, excelled as a public speaker and face for the agency, always at ease in the limelight and a forceful presence during the authority’s tough talks at the WTC site that reassured the public its stake in the rebuilding effort would not be subjugated to Mr. Silverstein’s.
While perhaps out of the public eye, Mr. Ward’s new role places him closer to a pipeline of transit and infrastructure that is potentially bigger than the Port Authority’s. Last month, Mr. Ward took an executive level position in the U.S. operations of the large international construction company Dragados, and he has grand ambitions for the firm.
“It’s a big change,” said Mr. Ward. “Being executive director of the Port Authority is making 50 different public policy decisions every day; here the focus is bottom-line business development.”
In recent years, a pattern of ballooning construction costs has plagued more than just the Port Authority. The situation has transpired in so many instances, it has come to seem like an endemic outcome for public transit and infrastructure projects. It’s a story that Mr. Ward can tell more compellingly by virtue not only of his tenure at the Port Authority but, before that, his time at the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, where, as that agency’s commissioner, he presided over the planning and construction of a water filtration plant in Westchester County’s Croton, which also busted through preliminary cost estimates.
According to Mr. Ward, a new era could be dawning in the U.S. where government seeks to off load large civic construction projects onto private partners who take on not only oversight of the work but responsibility for its costs, guaranteeing that government is not on the hook for overruns. These public-private partnerships (PPP) have become popular in Europe but slower to catch on here. Mr. Ward has ambitious plans for Dragados. The company, he says, will be in contention for billions of dollars of construction work and has a war chest of billions more to invest alongside government partners who embrace the PPP concept.
“My job is to identify and then win some of these large public works projects that are on the planning boards or ready to go around the country,” Mr. Ward said, citing plans to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge as one among many potential jobs that will be up for bid in the coming years. “There are major highway projects down in Texas that we’re keen on, some tunnel projects out West that we’re looking at.
Hydro plants in Canada. There’s a good $35 billion of major public infrastructure that will need to get built in the next five years and we’d like to get a significant part of it.”
When Mr. Ward left the Port Authority late last year, he didn’t have his new position lined up yet. He said he went to the gym and caught up on reading. More than anything else, he said, he walked. As a high official, Mr. Ward said he was cloistered.
“Three and a half years at the Port Authority, you don’t have a lot of time to yourself,” Mr. Ward said. “I walked the Hudson River Park, which is so beautiful. I walked new neighborhoods that I hadn’t been to. I hadn’t really been over to Williamsburg and so I saw that part of the city, just walked the whole thing. I walked Madison Avenue one day, which is such an eye opener. With everything that is going on in the world there’s this one little place that remains protected from the economic recession.”
Mr. Ward went to Macalester College in Minnesota and when he graduated in the late 1970s, he said he went to work as a ranch hand in NewMexico, leaving to then do a stint on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.
“We were about 150 miles offshore, out there for seven days on and then off for seven days,” Mr. Ward said. “There was every walk of life,
South Houston blacks, West Texas cowboys, Chicanos. At the time I had to be a working-class hero, I wanted to live the authentic life. I came to work for the city after graduate school at Harvard.”
One point that always stands out in his résumé is the focus of his studies. Mr. Ward has spent much of his career in public service roles involved with transit, infrastructure and construction, but in college he primarily studied theology.
“I always get questions about that,” Mr. Ward said. “All I can say is, it equipped me to ask critical questions and try to find answers to hard questions. Whether it’s an answer for a construction project or economics, it’s just a useful skill for problem solving.”