Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Debate Continues Over Tappan Zee Replacement

While New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has all but killed outgoing New York Governor David Paterson's proposal to have the Port Authority get involved in building a new Tappan Zee bridge, and much of the focus has been on the rough and tumble language Christie used, it's useful to remember how and why the Tappan Zee was built where it was.

The Port Authority, a bistate agency, wanted to retain a sphere of influence 25 miles in circumference from New York City (and which has since been extended to include the Stewart International Airport in Newburgh, New York). Thus, instead of locating the Tappan Zee at a point where the Hudson River was narrower, it forced the bridge to be built at one of its widest points.

That decision decades ago means that any replacement span will cost billions more than had a narrower site been chosen. The New York State Thruway Authority is the responsible for the construction and maintenance of the bridge and the Thruway (I87 and I287 in this part of the route).

The preferred design, which incorporates 8 lanes of vehicular traffic, bus rapid transit lanes, and heavy rail, would cost $16 billion. That includes not only the cost for the bridge itself, but the heavy rail and bus rapid transit approaches along the entire Rockland/Westchester County alignments and connections to Metro North rail lines in both counties.

Second Avenue Sagas parses out the costs and notes that Christie is ignoring that New Jersey, via the Port Authority, would get to keep half the toll revenues.

That's not quite accurate. The Thruway Authority gets 100% of toll revenues now. If the Port Authority gets involved and shares the costs 50/50 with the Thruway Authority, New Jersey would get 25% of the revenues (a toll amount to be determined but likely much higher than the current $5 toll ($4.75 for EZPass). The Thruway Authority would have to be compensated for the lost revenues since that helps fund the Thruway's operations statewide (the Authority doesn't receive state funding and is self-funding). It would significantly increase the pressure on the Thruway Authority to increase fares elsewhere in the state.

The Port Authority would also have to curtail some of its other capital projects to focus on the Tappan Zee project. Moreover, the benefit for New Jersey commuters for the Tappan Zee project are extremely limited at best. Few New Jersey residents are going to go North into New York to cross the Tappan Zee to go to Manhattan when the Tappan Zee is regularly riddled with traffic jams. Instead, most take the Palisades Parkway to the George Washington Bridge to go into Manhattan as the rail options are poorly scheduled and limited by local opposition to more frequent trips - particularly on the Pascack Valley line and bus options are only slightly better. Opening up a heavy rail option without a corresponding provision for adequate funding of those rail operations makes little sense and is likely to be severely underutilized.

The Port Authority is already committing money from the killed ARC tunnel project to improve its infrastructure at the George Washington Bridge, Port Authority Bus Terminal and Lincoln Tunnel helix replacement. Considering that the commuter buses handle more traffic than rail traffic into Manhattan on a daily basis, this is a far more cost effective use of the funds.

Indeed, the Tappan Zee replacement is likely to be a phased project, where the bridge is built to handle rail and bus rapid transit, but will be built for vehicular traffic first. Thus, when the additional funding is allocated, the bus and rail options will be added on at a later date.

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