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How the Cost of a Train Station at the World Trade Center Swelled to $4 Billion
David W. Dunlap | The New York Times


BOSTON — The federal government this week pledged nearly $1 billion to help finance the expansion of the Massachussets Bay Area Transportation Authority's (MBTA) Green Line from Cambridge into Somerville and Medford, a major boost for the long-promised transit project, The Boston Globe reported.

With its long steel wings poised sinuously above the National September 11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan, the World Trade Center Transportation Hub has finally assumed its full astonishing form, more than a decade after it was conceived.


Its colossal avian presence may yet guarantee the hub a place in the pantheon of civic design in New York. But it cannot escape another, more ignominious distinction as one of the most expensive and most delayed train stations ever built.


The price tag is approaching $4 billion, almost twice the estimate when plans were unveiled in 2004. Administrative costs alone — construction management, supervision, inspection, monitoring and documentation, among other items — exceed $655 million.


Even the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which is developing and building the hub, conceded that it would have made other choices had it known 10 years ago what it knows now.


“We would not today prioritize spending $3.7 billion on the transit hub over other significant infrastructure needs,” Patrick J. Foye, the authority’s executive director, said in October.


The current, temporary trade center station serves an average of 46,000 commuters riding PATH trains to and from New Jersey every weekday, only 10,000 more than use the unassuming 33rd Street PATH terminal in Midtown Manhattan. By contrast, 208,000 Metro-North Railroad commuters stream through Grand Central Terminal daily.


In fact, the hub, or at least its winged “Oculus” pavilion, could turn out to be more of a high-priced mall than a transportation nexus, attracting more shoppers than commuters. The company operating the mall, Westfield Corporation, promises in a promotional video that it will be “the most alluring retail landmark in the world.”


But whatever its ultimate renown, the hub has been a money-chewing project plagued by problems far beyond an exotic and expensive design by its exacting architect, Santiago Calatrava, according to an examination based on two dozen interviews and a review of hundreds of pages of documents. The soaring price tag has also been fueled by the demands of powerful politicians whose priorities outweighed worries about the bottom line, as well as the Port Authority’s questionable management and oversight of private contractors.


George E. Pataki, a Republican who was then the governor of New York, was considering a run for president and knew his reputation would be burnished by a train terminal he said would claim a “rightful place among New York City’s most inspiring architectural icons.” He likened the transportation hub to Grand Central and promised — unrealistically — that it would be operating in 2009.


But the governor fully supported the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s desire to keep the newly rebuilt No. 1 subway line running through the trade center site, instead of allowing the Port Authority to temporarily close part of the line and shave months and hundreds of millions of dollars off the hub’s construction. That, however, would have cut an important transit link and angered commuters from Staten Island, a Republican stronghold, who use the No. 1 line after getting off the ferry.


The authority was forced to build under, around and over the subway line, at a cost of at least $355 million.


Michael R. Bloomberg, who was then the mayor, demanded in 2008 that the memorial be completed by the attack’s 10-year anniversary. That meant part of the hub’s roof, which would be the decking under the memorial plaza, had to be built first, adding about $75 million to the budget.


At the same time, the Port Authority was often its own worst enemy.


A 2005 construction contract was supposed to set a guaranteed maximum price, but to accelerate the work, several expensive subcontracts were approved. And in 2008, the authority rejected money-saving suggestions worth over $500 million.


Ultimately, though it may prove to be the building’s saving grace, the architect’s extravagant vision was inextricably linked to the problems.


Mr. Calatrava — known for lyrically expressive structures that are challenging and costly to build — insisted on column-free interiors, labor-intensive building methods and sculptural and curvilinear steel elements that could only practicably be manufactured abroad.


One factory in northern Italy produced one-third of the 36,500 tons of steel in the hub. The steel bill for the entire project was $474 million.


Mr. Calatrava’s boldest gesture called for a roof that could open to the sky. In 2005, not yet convinced that the roof was practical to build, authority officials including David Steiner, a board member, visited the Milwaukee Art Museum to see Mr. Calatrava’s operable roof there.


As they waited outside the museum, the officials were joined by schoolchildren who had also come to watch. When the screen opened, the children applauded. Mr. Steiner turned to Mr. Calatrava and, according to the recollection of those who were there, said: “O.K., Santiago. You can have your goddamn wings.”

It would take another three years to kill this exorbitant idea.


An Irresistible Opportunity

In 2002, the federal government set aside $4.55 billion for Lower Manhattan transportation projects, an irresistible pot of money to local officials who could build something grand without dipping deeply into their own treasuries or spending too much political capital.


Planners envisioned an east-west underground pedestrian network radiating from two new aboveground landmarks: the Fulton Center, which opened in November and was built by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and the trade center hub.


“The hub is a project driven by institutional ambition, and once begun, the decisions that have made it so costly became irreversible,” said Lynne Sagalyn, the director of the Paul Milstein Center for Real Estate at the Columbia Business School, who is completing a book on the trade center redevelopment.


In 2003, the authority chose the Downtown Design Partnership, a joint venture, to design the hub’s aboveground entrance and other elements, while an in-house team was to focus on the PATH mezzanine and platforms. The partnership chose Mr. Calatrava as a subcontractor.


Then 52, Mr. Calatrava, a Spanish native, was at the top of his game. His train stations, bridges and cultural buildings were aesthetic sensations, though some have since been criticized for their cost and design.


His spectacular plans for the hub, unveiled in 2004, departed radically from the modest, utilitarian temporary PATH station that had been completed two months earlier for $323 million.


The hub’s centerpiece, called the Oculus, would be larger than Grand Central’s main concourse, with a roof of two movable wings that could open to the sky. Mr. Calatrava likened it to a bird taking flight.


Going beyond what the authority had initially sought, Mr. Calatrava designed the rest of the hub, too — the underground mezzanine, train platforms and connecting concourses. What concessions he could not gain with his considerable charm were often won by obstinacy.


The authority’s board authorized a $2 billion project in 2004 — $1.7 billion from the Federal Transit Administration and $300 million from the authority.


“The original schedules and budgets were unrealistic to begin with,” the Port Authority conceded in a 2008 self-critique. “Had the rebuilding program gone without a hitch, those dates and costs could never have been met.”


And there were many hitches. The Bloomberg administration upended the project in 2005, when a Police Department security assessment compelled significant revisions. To improve blast resistance, the Oculus had to have twice the number of steel ribs. The birdlike structure began to resemble a stegosaurus.


Doubts grew about the practicality of the design, prompting authority officials in 2005 to head to Europe and Milwaukee to tour Mr. Calatrava’s projects. They returned satisfied that his design was feasible.


In 2005, the authority finally authorized a construction contract with a joint venture called Phoenix Constructors. But the two sides could not agree on a guaranteed maximum price for the overall project, so Phoenix was allowed to sign subcontracts that cumulatively drove up the price. The Federal Transit Administration would cite this as a crucial failure.


When plans were dropped in 2005 for a building at Fulton and Greenwich Streets that would have allowed daylight to reach the hub mezzanine, Mr. Calatrava proposed an expanse of skylights set into the pavement. At night, they would glow from below — not unlike the disco dance floor in “Saturday Night Fever,” one architect suggested.


The Bloomberg administration strongly opposed the plan. It wanted a landscaped corner for the National September 11 Memorial instead. The administration prevailed, so the mezzanine roof had to be re-engineered to support the greater weight of trees, topsoil and irrigation.


As the costs of labor, materials and fuel climbed rapidly — in part because so much construction was underway simultaneously in New York — the authority was told in 2007 the final budget for the hub might reach $3.4 billion.


Leadership Churn

Consistent direction was rendered almost impossible by constantly changing leadership: four New York governors who appointed five executive directors of the authority, and five New Jersey governors who appointed four chairmen.


Complicating matters even more, different projects were undertaken within inches of one another at ground zero. For a time, a plastic tarp was all that separated the hub from the National September 11 Memorial Museum.


Contributing to the bloat in the budget was the authority’s practice of using it as a catchall for any related work performed on abutting sites, on common passageways and on shared mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems — over $400 million in all.


The authority did move to trim costs in 2008 by reducing the size of the Oculus and eliminating the movable roof.


Still, it rebuffed suggestions from independent engineers and architects that the Oculus be even smaller, that parts of the temporary station be reused and that columns, rather than a bridgelike structure, carry the No. 1 subway line through the hub’s interior.


Mr. Calatrava and his partners said that the impact and utility of the Oculus would be diminished if it were shrunken further, that the temporary station did not meet requirements for circulation of air and pedestrians, and that columns would interrupt visitors’ movement and provide a potential target for bombers.


At this point, Mayor Bloomberg assailed the hub as “too complicated to build” and demanded that the memorial be completed by Sept. 11, 2011.


His prodding hastened the project but made it more complicated. With the deck for the memorial in place, cranes could not lower materials and equipment to the hub mezzanine below, so the authority bought 10 flatcars for $3 million and used PATH as a freight railroad.


Explaining the rationale, Stu Loeser, a spokesman for Mr. Bloomberg, said, “Setting a real deadline broke the cycle of delays and delivered the memorial in time for the 10th anniversary, a crucial historical marker.”


A spokesman for former Governor Pataki did not respond to several requests for comment.


In 2009, Phoenix was dismissed. It was paid $982.5 million for its work. The Downtown Design Partnership has been paid $405.8 million. And, based on his share of the contract, Mr. Calatrava’s firm may have received about one-fifth of that, or $80 million.


He is now designing the St. Nicholas National Shrine at the World Trade Center and he recently told a Spanish newspaper that the fact he had been picked “shows that New York is satisfied with our contribution up to now.” He declined to be interviewed by The New York Times.


The Port Authority requested an additional $662 million from the federal government in 2009, pledging to finish the job in 2015 and to cap the total budget at $3.995 billion.


Faster, but Costlier

Setting aggressive new timetables had a cost of its own. In 2010, under orders from the Port Authority and its steel contractor, a Spanish steel manufacturer called Urssa began operating its factory around the clock to speed up delivery of parts needed at the hub. In all, Urssa racked up about $24 million in extra costs for accelerating the work, according to a lawsuit it filed against a contractor and the authority over payment disputes.


When it had not been fully paid by early 2011, Urssa ordered that a shipment of steel to New York be halted at Southampton, England, and returned to Spain. Urssa later moved to dismiss the lawsuit. Neither its lawyers nor authority officials would discuss the case.


Despite the cost overruns and delays, Mr. Foye, the Port Authority’s executive director, predicted the hub would be a “world-class transit gateway” that would “help transform Lower Manhattan into a thriving 24/7 neighborhood.” It is intended for as many as 160,000 PATH riders daily, nearly four times the number who ride to the World Trade Center site today.


Barring disaster, the authority expects to open the hub next year. The cost is currently placed at $3.7 billion, though that does not include several hundred million dollars of damage at the site from Hurricane Sandy in 2012.


What did nearly $4 billion buy? Certainly an arresting structure, but one whose details do not match the shimmering images that Mr. Calatrava used to seduce officials a decade ago.


For instance, the ribs of the mezzanine looked sleek as silk in the renderings but in reality have the texture of stucco because of a fire-protective coating. Asked in March why no one had smoothed the surfaces, Mr. Calatrava’s office answered, “The client was not prepared to spend the additional money.”