Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Details Emerging About Proposed Tappan Zee Bridge Replacement

Since the Federal government pushed to expedite the Tappan Zee bridge replacement, details have been limited as to what the bridge will look like and what kind of accommodations for mass transit will be included.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHA), which is behind the project, set the budget at $5.2 billion and the bridge will actually be two separate spans north of the current span. The termination points on either shore of the Hudson will be the same but the bridge will take a new alignment. Each new span will have four 12-foot wide lanes plus a full sized shoulder for emergency service/breakdowns. The current span lacks a breakdown lane, which means that any disabled vehicles results in massive traffic jams during rush hour or peak travel times.

To arrive at $5.2 billion, mass transit is not being included. That means no rail connections or bus rapid transit, although federal planners say that the bridge design could include structures designed to allow rail or bus rapid transit to be built at a later date.
The existing span is overcrowded and deteriorating after 56 years of use. Earlier this month, the Obama administration helped jump-start replacement plans for the Tappan Zee Bridge, declaring it eligible for fast-tracked federal approvals.

However, one aspect of the proposal will not be going forward, at least not yet. The mass transit aspects of the new bridge were dropped, which helped trim the cost to $5.2 billion from as much as $21 billion. The document only talks of future mass transit.

Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino thinks that leaving mass transit off the current design is short-sighted. "I am troubled by the proposed design's absence of a mass transit component that would help alleviate congestion," he said. "A new bridge — without a mass transit component — would already be at capacity on the day of its opening."

The plan calls for two separate four-lane spans, separated by a 42-foot gap — which is where a future mass transit component could be included. It would be built just north of the current bridge
The scoping document supersedes all the work done to date on a design that would incorporate mass transit in some form in a Rockland-Westchester transit corridor upgrade that would run to nearly $30 billion if fully built. The bridge component including mass transit was likely to run to $10 billion.

The main criticisms levied at the new expedited proposal is that it provides for no mass transit when the bridge is completed and the promise of building mass transit at a later date is cold comfort for those who have to make the trip at present. I am generally in agreement that mass transit needs to be included in some form, but I don't think heavy commuter rail is needed. The MTA might want to expand its service and connect its east of Hudson and West of Hudson service areas across the replacement bridge, but it has had limited ridership on its existing service (and a significant portion of the Port Jervis branch remains largely out of service due to Irene).

Second Avenue Sagas thinks that the state and federal government are making a mistake by killing the mass transit portion along the lines of the ARC tunnel cancellation by Gov. Chris Christie in New Jersey. In fact, they think that it's an even bigger mistake.
In a way, then, this decision is worse than New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s move to cancel the ARC Tunnel. There, he simply let the status quo stand. Here, Cuomo and the Feds are on the verge of funding something that will move transit-oriented progress backward in time. Even if the state or D.C. eventually found the money to add transit to the middle of the bridge, a wider roadway already in use won’t move the region forward.
It’s not too late for the Tappan Zee. The public comment period on the scoping document will last another three weeks, and already the public is making its voice heard. Yet, government officials say they had no choice. The money, they say, simply wasn’t there. Yet, New York could probably get away with tearing down the Tappan Zee and building nothing if they spent the $5.2 billion on improving rail service. That’s the 800 pound gorilla in the room.
They can't tear down the bridge, which is a critical component of the NYS Thruway and is a vital north/south connector through New York and a major hub for east-west traffic that seeks to avoid congestion through New York City.

Bus rapid transit makes far more sense since it requires less infrastructure to accomplish and could set the stage for rail to supplant rapid transit in the future. I don't think commuter rail component for the corridor is truly viable when better options would be for the expansion of the Spring Valley line into Rockland that take commuters into NY Penn/Hoboken via Secaucus. It's far more cost-effective than trying to build a completely new route with the hope of building the connectors at a later date. The MTA can barely complete repairs to the Port Jervis line, so where is it coming up with the funds to provide service across the bridge?

At the same time, it shows that the federal govenrment is unresponsive to the needs for mass transit and is unwilling to pay for it; it refused to take on the potential and likely cost overruns on the ARC tunnel that New Jersey taxpayers would have had to endure despite this being an interstate project. The federal DOT refused to budge on backstopping New Jersey on the cost overruns, so Christie killed the project before taxpayers took a huge hit; and the replacement Gateway tunnel proposal is better aligned for high speed rail, NJ Transit gets and cost overruns will be backstopped by the feds rather than New Jersey or New York taxpayers solely.

The feds are looking to spread money around as much as possible, and that means that they aren't funding projects that are truly deserving - such as incorporating the mass transit into the bridge design. Yet, there is a solution here within New York's grasp.

It means having the state pony up the difference to make sure that the federal portion gets utilized while incorporating the transit segment. That will take political capital from Albany and Gov. Cuomo doesn't appear willing to put that kind of money aside for mass transit. Neither is Westchester or Rockland capable of putting up money necessary for transit improvements through their respective counties.

Higher tolls along the NYS Thruway were going to be part of the state's bridge replacement plan, but that should still be incorporated in the project to make sure it gets built with a full-incorporated and built transit component.

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