New York City

How the Port Authority is rebuilding New York

Executive Director Rick Cotton on the future of the WTC, and whether LaGuardia will annex Rikers.

LaGuardia Airport.

LaGuardia Airport. Thomas Barrat/Shutterstock

Ask Rick Cotton, the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey a brief question, and he’ll jump into a long list of the agency’s recent achievements and ongoing projects. You can’t blame the guy. Cotton was tapped by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to head the authority in 2017 during a period of unprecedented construction and usage.

“Virtually every one of our facilities is operating at record levels, in terms of passengers handled at the airport, cargo at the port, riders of our commuter railroad, PATH,” he said. All the while, the Port Authority is coordinating $30 billion worth of investment into the area’s airports – including extensive renovations to both LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy airports. 

Cotton will be talking about all of it on Tuesday at City & State’s Rebuilding New York Summit at Baruch College. But we caught up with him ahead of the event to get an overview of his portfolio, asking about his thoughts on a Trump tweet, whether it’s too late to move the LaGuardia AirTrain and if the airport might expand onto Rikers Island.

Before you joined the Port Authority, you were Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s point person for the Second Avenue subway. What did you think of President Donald Trump’s surprise August tweet saying he would help complete the project? 

It was definitely a surprise – I think to everyone – because we’ve seen no movement on the part of the federal government on any infrastructure front. But this particular one was extremely surprising because it had no context. (And) as far as I know, those discussions (between New York and Washington) have not progressed to the point where there’s any kind of commitment of federal funding.

The Regional Plan Association has recommended a full restructuring of the Port Authority. The idea has been around for a long time though, and Cuomo vetoed a reorganization plan in 2014. Do you sense a need for organizational change?

It’s a matter for the states. Immediately following Bridgegate, a special panel was set up to make recommendations in terms of changes to the Port Authority on a whole variety of fronts. To the extent that the special panel made recommendations in terms of strengthening ethics and integrity reforms, those have been in place. Organizationally, I think the current structure is working well. I regard my charge as operating the organization as it currently stands.

The public comment period for the proposed toll hikes just ended on Sept. 13. I’m sure you got a lot of complaints. Are you reconsidering any of the ideas, like the LaGuardia ground access fee, or tolling private buses?

As you say, the comment period just ended. We’re still in the process of digesting all of those comments. We take all of the comments extremely seriously. But there have really been no decisions that have been made as to what changes might be recommended to the board.

A lot of New Yorkers are furious about the plan to connect the proposed LaGuardia AirTrain to Flushing, and not somewhere in western Queens. Plus the estimated cost has more than quadrupled, to $2.1 billion. Are there shovels in the ground? Or could the project be reconsidered?

The LaGuardia AirTrain is one of the highest priority projects that the Authority has. There is full funding provided for in what will be the revised capital plan submitted to the board at the end of September, with public comment on it. The (Federal Aviation Administration) is currently in the midst of its environmental review of the AirTrain. And the final decisions in terms of the route will be made after that environmental review concludes. 

In terms of western Queens, the Port Authority has indicated its preferred route. And that is based on what is feasible to build and to minimize the impact of the construction of the AirTrain on existing communities. Our preferred route does not require any taking of private residential or commercial property, and it does not go through any built-up communities. We provided an analysis of alternatives, and the alternatives from western Queens in general have insuperable constructability hurdles, as well as going through built-up communities. And for both those reasons, our preferred alternative is to have the AirTrain run from the very convenient rail connections available at Willets Point, led by the LIRR, which at the time the AirTrain is finished, those trains will run from both Penn Station and from Grand Central.

Everyone who drives a car is used to the choices that are provided by any of the GPS guidance systems. And everyone easily chooses when they’re told that one route is faster than another. What is clear to us is that the route that we prefer is going to provide customers with the fastest way to get to the airport. And the question of the exact route is really not the focus. The question is really convenience and speed of access.

Speaking of LaGuardia, was the potential future annexation of Rikers Island a part of the conversation around the airport’s redevelopment?

The focal point for the redevelopment was first, to move quickly, and second, to address the primary passenger constraints. The city has declared that it intends to close the Rikers Island facility. But the current debate is on what schedule? And the city’s schedule has been, at points, as much as 10 years. Sometimes shorter than that. But the Port Authority made a decision to move forward as quickly as possible, and so delaying the redevelopment of the airport until the resolution of when Rikers Island might become available wasn’t the path that was chosen. Now, if Rikers Island gets resolved, that might be the occasion for another discussion. But certainly in terms of the rebuild of the entire airport, that has simply proceeded on its own schedule.

We just passed the 18th anniversary of 9/11. The Port Authority is the landlord for the World Trade Center site. Do you feel like, after years of construction, it’s fully there as a public amenity for the city?

It has made enormous progress. The office towers, all four of them, have a daily employee count of between 35,000 and 40,000. Tower 4, Tower 3, Tower 1 and Tower 7 are completed. The performing arts center construction is well underway. We believe that Silverstein is very focused on moving forward on Tower 2. So the site is well over, I would, say 60% or 70% complete. We’re committed to continuing to move that forward. But it’s all in the interest of driving investment and moving our infrastructure projects forward.