March 6, 2014 2:50 PM EST

In November 2011, as One World Trade Center neared completion, Pat Foye was named executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and tasked with overseeing the completion of what would become the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere. Here, the executive director talks about his first few days at the helm, how the government agency kept 11 trains running just below the site’s surface throughout construction and what the building’s consummation means for New York and the nation.

When you came on to the P.A. in 2011, what did the site look like?

The steel was up to about the 85th, 86th floor, so substantial progress had been made. But I think the pace of construction over the past two to three years has been rapid. It’s been demonstrable. It’s been quantifiable. And in addition to the physical construction, the building is nearly 60% leased.

What did you do to keep construction moving forward?

We put financial controls in place and also controls to stop scope changes, and that’s kind of a fancy term for no more changes to design on the basic building. We want to get it complete. We want to get it finished.

How much of your time is taken up by this project?

I work on World Trade Center matters every day, but we also run the airports in the region – JFK, LaGuardia and Newark. They served 109 million passengers last year. The George Washington Bridge, which had 100 million vehicles, the Lincoln and the Holland Tunnels and the three Staten Island bridges. And we run the ports, which are the busiest on the East Coast. But I spend time on the World Trade Center every day, seven days a week.

What have been some of the milestones on your watch?

We had the spire installed. The transportation hub’s oculus is rising from the ground like a phoenix, which I think is a real sign of progress. The 9/11 Memorial welcomes millions of people a year and the museum will soon be in operation. That’s visible progress. But I expect the retail at the World Trade Center to be among the most valuable retail spaces of anyplace in the world and frankly will be one of the prime retail spaces in New York and in the country.

What have been some of the biggest obstacles building One World Trade Center?

One of the things that’s made construction so challenging is that the whole time it’s been going on, the PATH commuter rail that the Port Authority operates between New York and New Jersey has run. And the subways have run, while construction has gone on. And it wasn’t an option to tell the governor that we’ve got to close the subways down to Lower Manhattan or that we can’t have people commuting between Lower Manhattan and New Jersey. So you can imagine the complexity that added.

What have been your toughest days as executive director?

A tough day is 9/11 where 3,000 people get murdered. So there are lots of challenges here like any big complex organization that’s ultimately responsible to two governors. But nothing that compares to that. There were 84 members of the Port Authority family that were killed that day, and that resonates here with Port Authority people, whether you joined a week ago or whether you’ve been here 30 years. It’s something that’s front-of-mind.

How often do you think about 9/11?

It’s hard not to think about it when you’re down at the site. This is an organization very much touched by 9/11. And I think the site and One World Trade Center in particular are signs of resurgence and rebirth and renewal. It’s an incredibly important thing for New York City, for New York state, for the region, for the country. But also for the men and women of the Port Authority.

What still needs to be finished?

One of the things that is a sign of real concrete progress is we’re working on punchlist items. Punchlist items are when you do a new kitchen in your home, the contractor does it and it’s 99% done and this cabinet is a little bit askew and this handle needs put on. It’s longer and more complex and frankly more expensive, but that means we see light at the end of the tunnel.

So what will this site look like when it’s finished?

One, it’s going to be a concrete manifestation of this city and state’s and region’s response to the terrible events of 9/11. There are going to be tens of thousands of people a day who are going to be commuting in and working on the site along with hundreds of thousands working in Lower Manhattan. The World Trade Center is going to be an anchor of that economic engine.

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