With the hiring of former New Jersey Transportation Commissioner Kris Kolluri as CEO of the bi-state agency charged with building a $12.3 billion set of Hudson River rail tunnels, the green light is also on for another major step – hiring staff and building an agency.
Kolluri was nominated by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul on May 6, approved on May 16 and officially took the reigns of the Gateway Development Commission on July 15, after a contract had been reached with him that provides a $395,000 salary.
Now he has to build a organization that federal officials see as capable of overseeing construction of a project that could receive billions of dollars in funding.
His hiring is just the beginning. The commission is advertising for a capital projects director and has hired two NJ Transit executives. Eric Daleo, NJ Transit Capital Projects director, and Megan Strickland, NJ Transit Capital Compliance Budget and Administration chief, have been hired by the commission, said spokesperson Steve Sigmund.
Kolluri, in an interview with NJ Advance Media, explained hiring a staff is an important and necessary step to qualify for, and receive, a federal full funding grant agreement to build the Gateway Tunnels.
“Our concern is to make sure our operational standing is tied to what the federal (agencies) want us to do to be grant eligible,” he said. “The things we need to focus on are the legal, financial and technical capabilities of the organization.”
Building a staff and an operating budget are at the top of his agenda.
“We’re essentially going from an agency with some staff to one that we have to build out in a very short period of time,” Kolluri said. “So this is a very involved and continuous process with the Federal Transit Administration, Federal Railroad Administration and U.S. DOT.”
There are models of other special purpose agencies that Gateway Development Commission officials can examine, such as New York’s Empire State Development Corporation, he said, adding the GDC has also under taken studies to help guide it through its growth period.
“We’re about to do another one in a very short period to see what kind of organization we need to set up to match it up with the product delivery,” Kolluri said.
Does that mean the Gateway Development Commission will be another large government agency?
There is a financial concern, since its operating budget will be funded by New Jersey and New York. Right now, various partners, specifically the Port Authority and Amtrak, are funding salaries and operations, he said. The Port Authority is paying Kolluri’s salary until the GDC has its own budget.
“We wont just be staffed by full time employees, we’ll have consultant services come in as well,” he said. “That is a decision we’ll make with our federal partners.”
How many employees it could have and how much the budget will be are still being worked on. A budget could be public before fall, Kolluri said.
“The states are not just partners in funding the capital part of it, but in the operational part of it,” he said. “We are in the process of developing a budget, and in short order, we will present it to the partners, get consensus and advance it.”
The organization could also follow an idea that was used by the Trans-Hudson Express tunnel agency that was set up to build the now-canceled Access to the Region’s Core tunnel. That agency “borrowed” NJ Transit staff, in addition to having its own employees.
“I think all those models will inform our decision,” Kolluri said. “Most of our (current) employees are paid by one of our partner agencies, including me. What I think will happen is we will migrate … to a GDC paid staff model, supplemented by consultants from the private sector, as well as specific technical, legal and financial expertise we can get from other agencies.”
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Larry Higgs may be reached at [email protected].