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9/11’s White Elephant
By JOE NOCERA New York Times
There is nothing wrong — and much that is right — with building a national monument to memorialize the nearly 3,000 people killed in the 9/11 attacks a decade ago. The awful events of that day traumatized the country — and changed it. The dead deserve to be remembered. Far be it from me to suggest otherwise.
What I do want to suggest, though, is that what’s being built in the name of 9/11 — a staggering $11 billion worth of government-sponsored construction on the 16 acres we now call ground zero — is an example of just about everything wrong with modern government. When the World Trade Center site is finally completed, it will include a state-of-the-art train station whose cost overruns have surpassed $1 billion. The 9/11 memorial itself, which covers the footprint of the former twin towers, was so far behind schedule that it is now being hastily constructed, out of sequence, so that it will be ready by the 10th anniversary of the tragedy.
And then there’s 1 World Trade Center, scheduled to be completed in 2013, which will add 2.6 million square feet of office space in a city that doesn’t need it, at a cost so high that it will be a cash drain for decades to come. Where’s the Tea Party when you need them?
Last year, I wrote about 1 World Trade Center, pointing out that its $3.3 billion price tag made it, by far, the most expensive office building ever constructed in America. At the time, Richard Gladstone, the project manager for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which is in charge of rebuilding ground zero, told me point-blank that despite its costs, the new skyscraper would not affect the commuters who pay the tolls to cross the six bridges and tunnels the agency operates.
But, on Friday, that statement was shown to be — how to put this nicely? — untrue. The Port Authority, with the complicity of Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie, the governors of New York and New Jersey, who oversee the agency, approved a series of toll increases so onerous that by 2015, a typical commuter who uses the George Washington Bridge will have to pay $62.50 a week to get to work.
What has been especially galling has been the cynicism surrounding the efforts to get the toll increases. First, the Port Authority said that unless it could increase the tolls, it would have to “slow or stop” the construction of 1 World Trade Center. Though this scenario was highly unlikely, it got the construction unions duly aroused, as it was intended to do. They began calling in favors among the politicians.
The Port Authority was originally going to propose two increases of $2, spaced a few years apart. But the politicos in both Cuomo’s and Christie’s offices suggested that the agency come forth with a much higher initial toll increase — thus allowing the two governors to look like heroes when they “persuaded” the Port Authority to lower the increases. The governors also railed on about waste and fraud at the Port Authority, while knowing full well the real problem was the fact that $3.3 billion — money that could have been spent on needed infrastructure improvements — was instead diverted to a white elephant at ground zero.
I understand that it’s hard, even for a blunt-talking fiscal conservative like Christie, to openly criticize 1 World Trade Center. For many people, its rebuilding has enormous symbolic importance. George Pataki, the former New York governor, who pushed hardest for the rebuilding, originally named the building Freedom Tower. Recent editorials in the New York tabloids objecting to the toll increases nevertheless tiptoed gingerly around the outrageous costs of 1 World Trade Center.
But despite the shroud of patriotism that its supporters have always cloaked it in, it’s really just a big, fancy office building. An office building with such poor economics that it will soak New Jersey and New York commuters for decades to come. An office building only the government could love.
Lately, supporters of the project have begun saying that its economics have improved. They point to the fact that Condé Nast, the publishing giant, has agreed to be the anchor tenant. What they fail to point out is that Condé Nast’s rent is less than half the break-even cost of the 1 million square feet it will occupy. In other words, a company that publishes high-end magazines aimed at rich people will be getting an enormous government subsidy for the foreseeable future.
And who will be paying for that subsidy? The mailroom attendants who use the Lincoln Tunnel to get to work. The middle-class New Jersey-ites who use the George Washington Bridge. The firefighters and police officers who live in Staten Island. Thus, in the name of 9/11, does New York and New Jersey place another economic burden on the already overburdened middle class. How sad.