Port Authority chief charges ahead after COVID-19 recovery

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Rick Cotton fully recovered from COVID-19 less than three weeks after the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s executive director became one of the first public officials to test positive for the virus.

Cotton, 75, said during last Thursday’s Port Authority board of commissioners meeting that he self-quarantined at home for two weeks after his March 9 diagnosis along with his wife, who also recovered from the disease. He maintained a full schedule leading the bi-state transportation agency during this period.

Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton has headed up the bi-state agency since August 2017.

“I was on the phone for a huge percentage of that time and maintained, multiple, multiple conference calls,” Cotton said during a press briefing held after the virtual meeting conducted via teleconference. “I tried to be as available as I possibly could.”

This news comes as New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Patrick Foye was diagnosed with the virus.

Cotton said that 23 Port Authority employees tested positive for COVID-19 as of last Thursday with another 13 still awaiting results. An additional 31 workers were self-quarantining late last week due to being in close contact with colleagues who either tested positive or exhibited symptoms of the virus. He added that 164 staffers previously were self-quarantined before returning to work.

One of the chief tasks during Cotton’s time running the Port Authority under self-quarantine was sending a March 19 letter to New York and New Jersey congressional leaders seeking $1.9 billion in federal aid to combat lost revenues from COVID-19-related emergency shutdowns in both states. Cotton has joined a coalition of mass transit agencies in seeking $25 billion of federal aid that was included in a $2 trillion emergency relief bill approved by Congress last Friday.

“This federal support will be absolutely necessary to ensure that the Port Authority is able to play a strong role in jumpstarting the recovery once the states’ emergency orders expire,” said Cotton, who was tapped in August 2017 to lead the agency.

COVID-19 has hit Port Authority finances hard with passenger traffic at the agency’s airports plummeting 85% last week compared to March 2019 levels and PATH ridership falling 90%. Cotton said cargo volumes are down 30% for March compared to last year following the cancellation of 13 ships that typically transport goods from China, but Cotton said Chinese factories have begun to re-launch operations with only five cancellations on tap for April.

“There are further indications from the shipping line that the second half of April will see a surge reflecting the feeling of back orders of Chinese factories,” Cotton said. “The seaport will lead the recovery of volume post-crisis."

For 2019, the Port Authority recorded a $196 million, or 3.7%, increase in gross operating revenues compared to 2018 and ended the year with 93 days of cash on hand, according to CFO Elizabeth McCarthy. The agency ended 2019 with $23.9 billion in outstanding bonded debt, a 5.5% jump from the previous year.

The Port Authority has bond ratings of Aa3 by Moody’s Investors Service and AA-minus by S&P Global Ratings and Fitch Ratings.

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