Thursday, August 02, 2012

Potholes Along the Way For a New Tappan Zee Bridge

Everyone who has ever traveled across the Tappan Zee bridge or has been following infrastructure issues in the New York City metro region knows that the Tappan Zee is functionally obsolete and that it would take billions of dollars to keep it functionally obsolete without collapsing.

It lacks breakdown lanes so that if there's a minor accident, traffic can back up for miles, especially during rush hour. It wasn't built to handle the capacity it sees today, and it was built to a 50-year lifespan; a lifespan that was already exceeded a decade ago.

So, everyone understands that the bridge has to be replaced.

The battle is over shaping what its replacement will look like and what should happen to the old span.

I'll address the latter part first.

The old span should be largely dismantled. Trying to turn it into a green space ignores the point of replacing the span - it was becoming more and more difficult to maintain and converting it to a new use as a park similar to a railroad trestle in Newburgh ignores that building the new span and maintaining the old span would present a navigational hazard in the river, as well ongoing costs to maintain an obsolete span.
Supporters of the idea advocated modeling the old 3.1-mile bridge after Manhattan's High Line park, converting an outdated structure into a green space in the sky and a unique link between Rockland and Westchester counties for bikers and pedestrians. The proposal seemed to get a boost in February, when Mr. Cuomo called it "an exciting opportunity that we are going to be exploring."

But the federal review—a mandatory environmental-impact statement that had to be performed before construction—said the vision wasn't "prudent or feasible." Others said they weren't surprised, given the roughly $50 million a year the state spends on the bridge's upkeep. "I never thought it was a realistic idea," Rockland County Executive Scott Vanderhoef said.

Instead, the span, built in 1955, will be documented for historic and educational purposes as it is demolished over a period of 12 to 18 months, the review said.

The details were among many contained in the report from the Federal Highway Administration, which also laid out a series of strategies to reduce the disruption, noise and mess from the enormous project.

The new span should have pedestrian paths to allow walking or biking across the span. But, more importantly, it should have bus rapid transit lanes incorporated at the outset.

Governor Cuomo hasn't just tried to punt on the issue, but has actively sought to thwart building mass transit infrastructure into the new span as it is being built. He's claiming that the costs for building a rail and bus rapid transit would more than double the bridge costs and that rail could be added later (with additional billions in costs). The problem is that Cuomo's claims don't bear out.

Building in the bus rapid transit wouldn't require building out an entire bus corridor along I-87/I-287 through Rockland and Westchester. Costs could be minimized by building the initial link from Tarrytown to Nyack, allowing future phases to expand bus rapid transit on the Rockland side out to Suffern on the Rockland side. On the Westchester side, the I-87/287 service roads that run parallel to the highway could be appropriated for bus rapid transit at a minor cost pending a permanent solution using the highway's existing right of way (but not necessarily an elevated busway similar to how the JFK Airtrain operates above the Van Wyck Expressway in Queens). It's the elevated busway that would add billions to the costs; Cuomo incorporates all the infrastructure through both counties in inflating the bridge costs rather than focusing on the bridge and its immediate landing sites.

Moreover, Cuomo has expressed that there's opposition to mass transit where no such opposition exists. Bus rapid transit could get done - and done cheaper than he is willing to acknowledge, all while keeping the overall cost of the new span to around $5 billion.

Initially, four teams were expected to bid on the replacement project but only three did so: Kiewit-Skanska-Weeks Joint Venture (Kiewit Infrastructure Co., Skanska USA Civil Northeast Inc., and Weeks Marine, Inc.), Tappan Zee Bridge Partners, a Bechtel/Tutor Perini Joint Venture (Bechtel Infrastructure Corporation and Tutor Perini Corporation); and Tappan Zee Constructors (Fluor Enterprises, Inc., American Bridge Company, Granite Construction Northeast, Inc., and Traylor Bros.)

A fourth team, Hudson River Bridge Constructors, withdrew from the process because one of the members of the group, a Colorado contractor, Flatiron (which built a replacement span across Lake Champlain) didn't approve its submission.

Review of the proposals is expected to be completed in September and a notice to proceed should be issued in October. That means that we will have to wait until then to see the ultimate design for the replacement span and its iconic/signature design elements.

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