Soon after Andrew Cuomo won the governor’s seat last year, he visited the Tappan Zee Bridge. Built in the 1950s, the structure was considered at the end of its useful life. With the rusting three-mile span as a backdrop, the then-governor-elect mused about its future.
"Could you actually improve transportation in the region with a replacement bridge that could include rail, for example," he said. "The flip side is the cost of a new bridge, the planning, the delay, so those are issues that are going to have to be weighed.”
That was about a year ago. Let’s go back to a little further, to 2002. Faced with an aging money pit of a bridge, the state began formally studying its alternatives. It put a project team in place, which included Metro-North and the Federal Transit Administration. The project had a website, and office space in Tarrytown. And in 2008, the state announced it would be more cost-effective to replace the bridge, not repair it.
The then-DOT commissioner Astrid Glynn told WNYC that the new bridge would include bus rapid transit. Because, she said, "if the bridge does not include a significant transit option, it is going to be very difficult for those areas to have growth that is centered around transit, as opposed to simply auto-dependent."
And when the state presented several alternatives, all of them included some form of transit. In 2009, the state issued a cost evaluation that said bus rapid transit could add up to $2 billion in costs.
In November 2010, Governor Cuomo was elected. And things began changing. The first Tappan Zee meeting to appear on his public schedule, which was in May, did not include someone from Metro-North or the MTA. A few months later, the lease ran out on the project’s office space and wasn’t renewed. But it wasn’t until Columbus Day, according to Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, that he learned the extent of the changes -- from a press release. He says: "We couldn’t get any information from anybody – from the state or the federal government, and all of a sudden we see that the new design would not entail bus rapid transit or mass transit."
Meanwhile, the project’s website was altered to reflect the new, transit-free bridge designs--removing eight years of studies and reports. After public outcry, the data from the old website was restored. But what wasn’t restored were plans for bus rapid transit. Rob Astorino, who's a Republican, calls that decision pennywise and pound foolish. "I’m the cheapest guy around in government," he said."We’re cutting costs left and right. But if you’re going to spend money, spend it efficiently. And right now you’re going to replace this outdated bridge with another outdated bridge the day you cut the ribbon."
Kate Slevin is the head of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a transit advocacy group. She’s been watching the Tappan Zee project for years, and she says Cuomo’s decision flies in the face of almost a decade of study. "If they don’t do transit now," she says, "I don’t know that it will ever get done."
But Joan McDonald, the current state DOT commissioner, says transit hasn’t disappeared from plans. "I think it’s very important to clarify that," she says. "We’re speeding up construction of the bridge, we’re not slowing down transit. The proposed project that’s on the table now will be built to not preclude transit in the future, when it is financially feasible.”
That view didn’t placate some locals, like Betty Meisler. She’s a Valley Cottage resident who attended a public meeting in Nyack last month. She was hoping to see mass transit on the bridge. And when her expectations weren’t met, she wasn’t happy. "I don’t know what they’re accomplishing by doing this, other than putting in a new bridge to replace the existing one," she says. "They’re not changing anything for the commuters."
But Governor Cuomo’s office says a new bridge is a big change, and this version will cost five point two billion dollars, far less than any option with transit. A spokesman says that what the state needs most is a new bridge – now, and the construction jobs it will bring. That’s why the Governor called the White House to get special approval to speed up construction.
A statement from his office reads: “Governor Cuomo has ended over ten years of gridlock around the Tappan Zee project and expedited the process of rebuilding the bridge. After reviewing various options during the summer, the Governor obtained Federal commitment to expedite construction of a new Tappan Zee bridge in a fiscally responsible manner so that new jobs could be created within a year while preserving all the options for mass transit.”
His office says work on the bridge’s replacement could begin as early as next summer.
You can listen to the radio version of this story below.