Last week, the World Trade Center price tag jumped by a few hundred million. At least, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo hopes it will – included in his $4.9 billion Coordinated Transportation Resiliency Program is an item, at the top of his wish list for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, for $413 million, labeled “World Trade Center – Resiliency Improvements.” The Federal Transit Administration will be asked to pay $310 million of that tab.
The whole Port Authority wish list costs just under a billion dollars. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which run’s New York City’s subways, buses, commuter railroads and tolled bridges and tunnels also gets a few billion in requests, as does the Moynihan Station Development Corporation, to waterproof and harden “life safety systems, electrical power” at a railroad station that has not yet been funded.
The World Trade Center is a massive site with a number of separate components, and could be vulnerable to flooding either during construction or after completion. What exactly this $413 million is for, though, is anybody’s guess. About half a dozen emails and calls to the Port Authority’s press office went unreturned, and a promise from Gov. Cuomo’s press shop to get back to us went unfulfilled, with a similar number of calls and emails ignored.
The press release says that the request is for funding to “make the World Trade Center site more resilient against water intrusion,” but doesn’t specify which part of the multibillion dollar site it’s for. The fact that it comes as part of a “Transportation Resiliency Program” could mean that it’s for the nearly $4 billion Santiago Calatrava-designed “Transportation Hub,” or perhaps the “Vehicle Security Center.” Or maybe the label is misleading and the money is going to shore up the entire foundation, dubbed the Bathtub. It wouldn’t be out of character with the rest of the funding request, in which the MTA prioritizes Penn Station Access — a worthwhile project to bring Metro-North trains into Penn Station, but one that seems fairly disconnected from resiliency — above protecting the yards and tunnels from flooding.
And about this vulnerability to flooding — when exactly will the site be vulnerable? Public radio station WNYC ran a story last year on the site’s vulnerability, but implied that it would be safe, or at least safer, once construction wraps up:
A Port Authority of New York and New Jersey official says a built-out World Trade Center site will be less vulnerable to future storms like Sandy once construction is done by 2020. But the authority hasn’t decided what to do in the meantime to protect the site from rising tides.
Hurricane Sandy exposed flooding vulnerability a year and a half ago, and completion of the Port Authority-owned portions of the site is near. One World Trade Center is already topped out, the 9/11 memorial was completed years ago and the museum is opening in May, and the Transportation Hub is scheduled to open at the end of next year. (The Two and Three World Trade Center sites, destined for office towers that haven’t even won financing yet, are owned by Silverstein Properties, not the Port Authority.)
The funding request could be — again, just speculation in the absence of any official Port Authority word — a result of a flood vulnerability review that was ordered last year. According to minutes from a Port Authority Board meeting in October, around a dozen separate consultants and architecture and engineering firms working on the project were asked to provide suggestions for flood mitigation measures on all parts of the site. The final portions of the project, the two private office towers with not set completion date, are not specifically mentioned, although one firm was responsible for evaluating the World Trade Center “site-wide.” The Board ordered $21 million in “initial permanent flood mitigation measures” for the Vehicle Security Center and a $10 million study on site-wide flooding, which it said “may be supplemented by additional hazard mitigation projects in the future.”
Another hint that leads us back to the Vehicle Security Center can be found on a storm recovery website from the governor’s office. The site details that “most of the water” entered through the low-grade security center, which will include an underground network of roads providing access to the various components of the site, along with a screening facility to check incoming tour buses for explosives (you can decide whether the hundreds of millions are worth the convenience for tourists, who might otherwise have been dropped off in New Jersey and ridden the PATH train directly into the new $4 billion station at the World Trade Center). Even aside from any needed flood protection, the glorified parking garage is very likely the most expensive on the planet, at $633 million. Or at least, that was the price tag in 2008, when the whole site was billions cheaper — who knows how its budget has changed since.
If we hear back from the Port Authority on what this money is for and what sort of flood vulnerabilities it’s seeking to correct, we’ll update this article.
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Stephen J. Smith is a reporter based in New York. He has written about transportation, infrastructure and real estate for a variety of publications including New York Yimby, where he is currently an editor, Next City, City Lab and the New York Observer.