2015-11-25 / Front Page

PA Executive Director Speaks At Queens College Business Forum Breakfast

By Thomas Cogan

At the last Queens College Business Forum breakfast, in early June, it was announced that the guest speaker at the next one, in November, would be Patrick J. Foye, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.  The day in November arrived and so did Foye, though by the time of this latest meeting he had just announced his resignation from the PA after being its head for four years.  Queens College President Felix V. Matos Rodriguez introduced Foye by calling him a man of his word and therefore, though he had surprised Matos and many others by saying he was stepping down, he would still appear as speaker.  Foye talked about the PA in the present tense, as if he would see the projects he described being completed under his directorship.  His enthusiasm was high, and it’s easy to imagine he’ll be gratified by their completion and attend the inauguration ceremonies.

Foye began by explaining that the Port Authority runs the three metropolitan airports, 1 World Trade Center, the Port Authority Trans Hudson (PATH) trains, the Port Authority Bus Terminal and many bridges and tunnels.  He had absolutely nothing to say about the infamous traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge in the fall of 2013, though he was the one who ordered it cleared; he had initially come to talk about the well-run or problematic parts of the vast, two-state system, without commenting on the incident known now and forever as Bridgegate.  His resignation would not change the content of his address.  He said that running the La Guardia, John F. Kennedy and Newark International Airports and the George Washington Bridge

is “a terrific business” and 1 World Trade Center is also a big winner; PATH and the bus terminal “not so much.”

Foye, who was appointed PA executive director in November 2011 by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, is the son of Irish immigrants and was brought up in Jackson Heights, so it was easy for him to emphasize the importance of the La Guardia and JFK Airports to Queens.  He said they provide $35 billion worth of economic activity and $12 billion in wages, so it’s not surprising that they are “the single largest factor in Queens’ economy.”  But they and Newark International had $7 billion in maintenance funds stripped from them after the 9/11 attack as part of the drive to rebuild the destroyed World Trade Center.  He said that they are now beginning to recover, but the post 9/11 period has been tough for them, particularly La Guardia.  Foye said that Vice President Joe Biden’s harsh reference to La Guardia as a “third world” airport last year was just. 

He predicted though that it had a bright future, because it is being given a major overhaul under a public-private partnership (PPP) with the Swedish development and construction company, Skanska.  He said it will be “the PPP of the decade” and that a fee excised from airplane fares finances much of the project.  He predicted that the project will be finished in record time.  For the present, he is amazed how it is being done without closing off any part of the airport.  He said that when work is completed, 45 months from now in 2019, the terminal will be half again as large as it is now.

More than a century ago, he said, private capital was the total builder of such projects as Grand Central Terminal, Pennsylvania Station and the first part of the New York subway.  All eventually wound up as public entities.  He said that private projects sometimes work even now, but the PPP seems to impress him most.  Another such project is the Goethals Bridge, connecting New Jersey and Staten Island.  It was opened in the 1920s and had become very much in need of repair.  The project is an instance of public monitoring of the private contractor’s progress.  There are no payments to the contractor until the project is seen as 70 percent completed, he said. 

When he asked for questions, Thomas Grech, executive director of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, asked him about the main changes he foresees in the next 15 years.  He predicted that the World Trade Center would be sold in the next few years, saying it should be.  With La Guardia’s new look already mentioned, he saw modern airports, new and refurbished, “that aren’t an embarrassment.”  He takes driverless cars seriously, saying they could be in effect almost before we know it.  He said the bus terminal had not 15 years to go, but 20.  He lamented its neglect but said any attempt to repair or replace it would be a $10 billion project.  He assumed that one way or another it will remain—the largest bus lane in the world is in the Lincoln Tunnel, and it’s the pathway to and from the bus terminal.  As PA head, PATH safety has been his chief concern, he said.  Fearing a public transit disaster, he has always demanded instant contact, at any hour of the day or night, should large disruption occur on the PATH lines.

An inquirer suggested an Airtrain from JFK to La Guardia.  Foye said it is imperative to build one exclusively to La Guardia, starting, he believes, from Penn Station.  A question about a Hudson River rail tunnel brought him around to the proposed Gateway Tunnel between northern New Jersey and Penn Station, to replace the circa 1905 twin tunnels that currently carry New Jersey Transit and Amtrak trains back and forth.  Those storm-damaged tunnels will fail eventually, he said, so Gateway is crucial, and better than the proposed ARC (Access to the Region’s Core) Tunnel, which New Jersey Governor Chris Christie canceled as too expensive in 2010, since ARC would not have been used by Amtrak.  But whether crucial or not, tunnel permits take six or seven years to acquire in the United States, he said.  He added that any delay costs billions and that as we delay we are breeding a disaster. 

Even if he had not resigned, most or all of the matters Foye talked about would be resolved or continue long after he finally left office.  But he had to project once more, when a student asked if Queens College students’ undergraduate studies have prepared them to seek employment to replace those who are retiring from the Port Authority.  He said such majors as sociology and economics would certainly prepare them; even theology, since, he said, he knew a man at the PA who had a doctorate in theology.  A more sobering question came from a woman who asked if there would be opportunities there for the formerly incarcerated. He answered that legal complications would have to be faced but that he believed it’s a worthy cause that could produce social benefits.      

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