Herbert London: The World Trade Center Site Fiasco
For as long as I can recall the Port Authority has been a mystical institution with enormous responsibility and with an overhang of patronage and soft money allegations. In a recent audit the Port Authority was described as dysfunctional and running up billons in cost overruns. Most significantly, the audit spoke to “insufficient cost controls” and “a lack of transparent and effective oversight.”
None of this should be a surprise. For more than a decade the World Trade Center site has been a hole in the ground lending support to the claim of a radical Muslim victory after 9/11. Pataki, Patterson and Corzine couldn’t agree on a direction and when they did, the funding plan was inadequate and lacking any serious perspective. In fact, every politician in New York and New Jersey got caught in the centrifugal force of economic conditions they didn’t understand or were too naïve to face directly.
This 50 page audit report by Navigant also outlines the role of comptrollers, like Carl McCall, who were seemingly incapable of coming to grips with the financial demands of rebuilding the WTC site. Even now there are insufficient funds to complete the Freedom Tower, the presumptive linchpin of the project that stands two-thirds complete and one-third exposed, a testament to the failure of Port Authority planning.
Governors Cuomo and Christie have made a pledge to make the Port Authority accountable. But where do they find the money to complete this massive project? Erstwhile governor Patterson admitted that what began “as a demonstration of vigilance and response to the terrorists turned into a real estate boondoggle.” In an effort to get the 9/11 Memorial completed for the tenth anniversary of the attack, Port Authority Executive Director Chris Ward said, “there are likely to be overruns…”
In most government directed projects there are overruns, in part because public inefficiency is built into the process. Recall, for example, the foolish architectural contest for the site launched by Governor Pataki and the extent to which this led to delays. By the way, the design plan that won the contest proved to be unworkable and had to be scrapped. It is not coincidental that Larry Silverstein’s tower north of the Freedom Tower and built entirely with private funds has been an operational building for seven years. The contrast could not be more profound.
To address the cost overruns the governors have been discussing toll hikes. At this point, it may turn out to be more expensive for a Brooklyn resident to visit Staten Island by car than for me to drive to Atlantic City from my Manhattan apartment. The Port Authority and the entire WTC project are afloat in red ink.
Moreover, in all of the deliberations among Port Authority representatives, New Jersey members insisted on “equal value” with their New York counterparts. A dollar for the Freedom Tower should result in a dollar for Path trains. Who can blame them since each member has a constituency that must be addressed. But in the process the project cash register kept ringing.
At one point Mayor Bloomberg dipped his toe into the murky WTC waters only to pull it out quickly. He realized this is a quagmire with no political benefit. Those who did have something to gain, Pataki, Patterson, Corzine among others dropped the ball and ended up in a place between foolishness and exasperation.
For a nation that wanted to show resilience and fortitude after 9/11, we instead displayed incompetence and fecklessness. This isn’t a pretty picture, but it is one, we as New Yorkers, must confront. One way or another the citizens of this metropolitan area will be picking up the tab for state governments that couldn’t handle the challenge on their doorstep. September 11 is not only a day that lives in infamy; it is a day that reminds us of government ineptitude.
Herbert Londonis a senior fellow at Manhattan Institute, president emeritus of Hudson Institute and author of the book Decline and Revival in Higher Education (Transaction Books).
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