Monday, August 20, 2012

Tappan Zee Bridge Replacement Gains Key Approval

Despite concerns that the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council was violating state law, or at least stretching the notice requirements so as to allow a vote on the Tappan Zee replacement project without giving proper notice, the Council did hold its emergency meeting today.

Backed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, the Council unanimously approved the project, even though there's still no concrete design and the final costs are still not known.
The 9:30 meeting was streamed from the state Department of Transportation website, but had no audio during the 40-minute program, which included public comments from Riverkeeper and Tri-State Transportation Campaign and a presentation by the board.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a steadfast advocate of a new Tappan Zee, is expected to comment on the milestone vote at a news conference in Piermont at 1 p.m., his office said.

The unanimous vote in favor of the $5.2 billion project was expected, after the county executives from Westchester, Rockland, and Punam announced last week they supported the governor’s plan to replace the Tappan Zee. To ensure the state could compete for federal funds for the project, today’s meeting was quickly organized on Friday afternoon.

That drew sharp criticism from major interest groups which argued that a last-minute notice prevented the public from getting involved.

Veronica Vanterpool, executive director of Tri-State Transportation Campaign, attended Monday’s vote and questioned whether the project will be able to secure federal funds. Last week, a state comptroller report blasted the Thruway Authority for poorly managed finances. The Thruway Authority owns and operates the Tappan Zee.

“In order for this to be a competitive project, there are a lot of red flags raised, by the comptroller and by the credit agencies,” Vanterpool said. “That needs to be addressed. You want it to be the best project so it will receive federal funds. How can it be the best project if the finances are so shaky?”
Even the county officials in Rockland and Westchester are left with only assurances that mass transit (whether bus rapid transit or commuter rail) will eventually be included in an I-87/I-287 corridor project to come after the bridge is built with capacity to handle eventual construction.

We'll probably get our first crack at viewing the bridge designs once the winning bids are announced next month.

Still, the biggest question is how the bridge construction will be funded. Approximately $2 billion will be paid for via a federal loan. The remainder will be funded from user tolls. The last couple of weeks have seen the Governor's office release a toll structure that would nearly triple tolls, but then Governor Cuomo admitted that the tolls seem to be high.

He's trying to play the tolls both ways. On the one hand, his office put out those numbers knowing what it would take to cover the construction and debt costs. By their reckoning, those tolls are needed to fund the construction if the state is incapable or unwilling to pony up the money directly so as to cover the debt costs and construction costs directly. On the other hand, the Governor can claim that he's now concerned that the numbers would produce such high tolls and he'd look into it.

However, that could mean that the transit options get shelved indefinitely, even though they have the potential to take the largest number of vehicles off the road and reduce congestion throughout the I-87/I-287 corridor. That, however, is a direct competitor to the Thruway Authority's need to stimulate tolls that generate revenues for the Authority to fund both capital projects and operating expenses.

One of the rationales for hiking the tolls to their stratospheric levels is that it would match the George Washington Bridge's new tolling. That doesn't make a whole lot of sense since the Port Authority's come under fire itself for hiking tolls when the perception that the money isn't going to fund transportation infrastructure but rather World Trade Center work. Mind you that the gap in the Port Authority's budget is due almost entirely to the cost overruns associated with the PATH transit hub at the WTC - $1.2 billion in overruns nearly matches the money expected to be realized from the toll hikes.

What gets lost in all this is why infrastructure projects costs as much as they do when compared to European or Japanese projects of similar scope. There's no reason they should cost as much, and yet project after project has seen overruns and cost estimates that boggle the mind.

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