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NEW YORK CITY-The New York City region may “choke on its own growth” within 30 years if its infrastructure capacity does not keep pace with that growth, said the head of the Port Authority at a breakfast forum here Friday.

“What are we doing with the network that we’ve built so far, and more importantly, what are we going to do with it in the future?” asked Chris Ward, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, in a presentation before the New York Building Congress. With the region expected to add 2.2 million residents by the year 2040, he said, careful planning is necessary to anticipate and accommodate the region’s highway, air, rail and shipping traffic 30 years hence.

Among the examples Ward gave was that of the George Washington Bridge, which he said “really has no off-peak period” today. The bridge linking upper Manhattan to Fort Lee, NJ also illustrated a couple of other points: the region’s planners in the 1920s wisely anticipated heavier use in the future, moving it from its originally projected location in Midtown; and its steel-truss design was a cost-saving compromise on the massive stone-masonry construction intended by architect Cass Gilbert.

“Budgets will always be budgets,” Ward said in his presentation at the New York Academy of Sciences at 7 World Trade Center. “But if we plan for the things we need, we can still achieve greatness.”

Budget constraints must be reckoned with even in public-private partnerships. Ward noted that due to rising fuel costs, the airline industry will net only $8 billion in 2008, half of its 2007 take–and this capital shortage comes at a time when the airlines need to build larger-capacity terminals at the region’s overcrowded airports, especially as aircraft such as the new Airbus A380, which holds 500 passengers and recently landed at Kennedy Airport for the first time, become reality.

Nonetheless, he said, that greater capacity has to be accommodated. “We need a new partner in Washington, a new FAA” to help figure out how to bring rationality to the system, he said. He noted that Stewart Airport, in the upstate New York town of New Windsor, will eventually become “a key reliever” of the three major airports’ increasing congestion.

The region’s rail network–which Ward said lacks the connectivity of a true network–has to be integrated “so that people know they can commute in this region without getting in their cars.” He called the forthcoming ARC tunnel that will boost trans-Hudson rail capacity “a regional project” of tremendous importance to both New York and New Jersey.

Ward also called for enactment of congestion pricing “or some other mechanism,” and said that an expanded ferry system and high-speed rail are both under consideration to alleviate roadway traffic. However, he said, “I don’t think we should kid ourselves that high speed rail is an inexpensive option.”

The New York/New Jersey region’s ports have been growing over the years and will need greater capacity in the future, Ward said. He added that bringing the docking facilities of Bayonne, NJ into the picture is one option, although there would be a challenge in moving huge container ships under the Bayonne Bridge.

In response to a question from former Gov. Mario Cuomo, who was in attendance, Ward said public-private partnerships will likely be called on increasingly in the near future. A project such as the rebuilding of the Tappan Zee Bridge–with a price tag variously estimated at $5 billion, $14 billion or $20 billion–would strongly suggest this approach, he said.

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