Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Tappan Zee Bridge Replacement Gets Fast-Tracked?

The New York Times is reporting that the Obama Administration is set to fast-track funding for a replacement bridge at the Tappan Zee. The existing bridge, which is part of the New York State Thruway - I87/I287 corridor and a key route for trucks avoiding traffic across the New York region, dates back to the 1950s and is in dire need of replacement.

The bridge is functionally obsolete and deficient structurally and the Thruway Authority has been spending hundreds of millions of dollars on repairs to keep the span open.

A replacement span has been in the works for years but the cost would range into the tens of billions of dollars, particularly if heavy commuter rail is included in the span design or if a tunnel is chosen over a bridge.

The Tappan Zee project is one of 14 projects around the country getting fast-track funding.
For two decades, local politicians have been trying to get the aging bridge repaired or replaced, and a number of options have been suggested. Transportation experts originally said the project could cost $9 billion to $16 billion, depending on whether the state included a bus and rail line.

The bridge, which was built in the 1950s, has cost the state $100 million a year in repairs and $83 million in studies about how to replace or fix it, said the Westchester County executive, Robert P. Astorino. When he took a boat tour beneath the bridge with other elected officials in July, Mr. Astorino said, the paint was peeling, there was rust on its joints and spans, and netting covered up much of its underbelly.

Mr. Astorino feared that if the bridge were not repaired or replaced, it could one day simply be shut down — forcing drivers, who make about 170,000 crossings each day, to find alternatives.

“This is a major economic artery for the entire region,” he said.

Citing the bridge’s deteriorating condition, the federal Department of Transportation decided it would let the state go forward with the project as long as it streamlined its earlier plan to make a new bridge a centerpiece of a $21 billion, 30-mile transportation corridor. The federal agency said it would help speed up the process for the state to build a $5.2 billion eight-lane bridge, to which mass transit could be added in the future.

John D. Porcari, the deputy transportation secretary, said the expedited review process would allow different government agencies to work concurrently, shaving two and a half years off the building process. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo called the fast-tracking “a shot in the arm for the project and a major step forward to restoring this key piece of infrastructure and putting tens of thousands of New Yorkers back to work.” The governor personally lobbied William M. Daley, the White House chief of staff.

The state will pay for the project by issuing $3 billion in bonds against its toll revenues; the remaining $2.2 billion will be financed with loans from labor pension funds and the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act.
This is a huge project that would improve traffic flow across the Hudson River and help insure that a major arterial highway in the New York region doesn't suffer from structural collapse or closure (a problem seen elsewhere in the country).

The four alternative bridge plans that have survived the public review process would all include transit components, whether is dedicated bus rapid transit lanes, high-occupancy vehicle lanes, and/or heavy commuter rail line extensions from Suffern, New York running to Tarrytown across the Hudson - providing an Upper Hudson River transit point.

At the same time, critics are complaining that the replacement span may not well include heavy rail mass transit, and commuters wont have any choice but to drive. It would also likely result in higher tolls at the bridge.

The concerns are well founded in that once the bridge is built, the political will to add mass-transit and the added cost would be prohibitive. Adding the transit at the outset would be forward-thinking and more costly up-front, but would end up saving money in the long run.

Yet, the higher up-front cost could result in enough political opposition that the project might get killed even though the need is dire.

Overall, this is a project that would benefit upwards of 170,000 commuters daily and that number is expected to rise as the Rockland-Westchester corridor population increases and traffic patterns shift in the suburbs.

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