Multiple news outlets have reported that Port Authority Executive Director Chris Ward will resign by the end of October, after 3 years of leading the agency. During his tenure, Ward kept agency budgets lean and took control of the World Trade Center rebuilding efforts. As Tri-State’s executive director Kate Slevin told the NY Times, Ward also “made a very strong and convincing case for more investment in our infrastructure.”
One recent example of that was a bold speech Ward gave at a NY Building Congress luncheon this summer. For years, transportation infrastructure has been on the decline: bridges are deficient, roads are crumbling, transit systems are aging. Ward candidly compared the foibles of recent years with the marvels of the Progressive Era (when Grand Central, the subway system, and the underground water network were built). He lamented the passing of an era of bold innovation driven by courageous decision makers who understood the long-term implications of the decisions. Too many of today’s leaders have kicked the can down the road and left future generations to deal with the consequences, and made it a struggle just to maintain existing infrastructure. Ward said:
The Port Authority recently sought to significantly raise its tolls and fares… In an instant, we became subsumed in the political environment I have been describing – one with little capacity to support the investment our region’s economic backbone so desperately needs.
By the end of it, we emerged with a ten-year capital plan that in some ways is all too modest – one that keeps our transportation network in a state of good repair to be sure, but not one that expands it in any transformative way. That agenda was unthinkable in this environment. […]
Unfortunately, you cannot always do more with less. Sometimes you must simply do more. And until that reality becomes part of our political conversation, we will be playing catch up with the rest of the world.
In the last few years, the nation’s biggest transit project (the Access to the Region’s Core rail tunnel) was cancelled, riders of the nation’s largest transit agency (the MTA) have twice faced the prospect of “doomsday” budgets, transportation construction programs in New York and New Jersey have been patched up with duct tape, the Lake Champlain Bridge in upstate NY had to be blown up after it was found unsafe, and lack of maintenance directly contributed to rail shutdowns in the winter (Metro-North’s New Haven line) and summer (NJ Transit and Amtrak derailments and electrical problems, LIRR switch failures). At the federal level, it often seems as if the best case scenario is the status quo, with massive cuts the only other option.
The financial and political environment hasn’t stopped all progress. But Ward is right to worry about the consequences of continued neglect. Let’s hope the next wave of transportation leaders is thinking about those consequences too.