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The preliminary audit of the Port Authority in many regards only highlighted the obvious: that the agency is facing a huge debt exacerbated by the redevelopment of the World Trade Center.
The audit identified the W.T.C. project as the root of its financial woes, principally due to added costs associated with completing the 9/11 Memorial by the 10-year anniversary. The audit states that the project’s price tag increased from $11 billion in 2008 to a current estimated cost of $14.8 billion.
We find no coincidence that the year 2008 also happens to be the year that former Port Executive Director Chris Ward took the helm. Governors Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie were quick to pin the “dysfunction” of the agency, following the public outcry over last year’s toll increases, on Ward and to award a $2 million contract to a consulting firm to perform the audit.
As with any audit, there were suggestions of cost-cutting measures including requiring employees to pay into their healthcare plans, instituting new controls for overtime pay and eliminating add-on compensation programs like unused vacation days.
We must remember that these are typical areas that auditing firms tend to focus on to trim the fat at any corporation or city or state agency, and that, while many media outlets jumped on the opportunity to slam the Port, they failed to concede that any mammoth redevelopment project spread over many years reasonably entails budget changes and unexpected costs. To think the agency could have met the 10-year anniversary date for the memorial’s completion without cost overruns — which were directly attributable to dealing with third parties such as New York City, the MTA, Silverstein Properties, and the 9/11 Memorial Foundation — is nearsighted at best. Mayor Bloomberg acknowledged this fact, calling it “naïve” to not expect ballooning costs in the rebuilding of “perhaps the most complex construction project in the history of the world.”
Bloomberg also pointed out an important fact barely mentioned in the audit, which is that the $1 billion surplus for the tenant fitout of One W.T.C. wasn’t included in the project’s original budget calculations.
The audit does acknowledge the adversities the agency endured over the last 20 years, from the February 1993 bombing to the attacks of 9/11, which resulted in the death of its then executive director Neil Levin, along with 83 other employees. Needless to say, one of the adversities is managing a project of this length and complexity through four N.J. Governors, four N.Y. Governors, and four heads of the Port Authority.
But the agency can no longer use 9/11 as an excuse for its management flaws. With more than a decade of post-9/11 life behind us, we now call on the Port to continue reconstruction of the site as rapidly as possible while minimizing cost overruns. The agency must find a way to secure funding commitments from the third parties without delaying progress.
In particular, the Port must resolve the prolonged deadlock it has with the 9/11 Memorial Foundation over unanticipated construction costs as quickly as possible. It is unacceptable that work on the Memorial Museum has slowed significantly due to a disagreement over the project’s finances.
As much as we must recognize these financial hurdles, it’s important for us not to forget the poignant milestones that were met. Completing the memorial by the 10-year anniversary was a strong first step. The audit tells nothing of the emotions that were felt when One W.T.C. finally started rising and when family members of those who died on 9/11 stepped foot onto the 9/11 Memorial last September.
What would the costs have been if we had to stand up in front of the city, the nation, and the world and admit we couldn’t get the job done?