Tappan Zee Tolls: The Backlash to the Backlash

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Tappan Zee Bridge (photo by waywuwei via flickr)

Following last week’s news that tolls on the new Tappan Zee Bridge could nearly triple by the time it opens in five years, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office has mounted a PR campaign trumpeting support for the $5 billion project.

The governor's team has been sending out near-daily emails listing numerous backers of a new bridge--including an endorsement from former New York Governor George Pataki, who had defeated Andrew Cuomo's father, Mario, in 1994. Notably absent from the list of supporters: Rockland County executive Scott Vanderhoef and Westchester County executive Rob Astorino, two elected officials who have yet to sign off on the project in order for it to receive federal funding.

The Cuomo plan would set the new bridge's cash toll at $14, a hefty jump from the current $5 charge. The governor says the increase is needed to pay for the $5.2 billion span, whose "basic source of financing will be the tolls."

Administration officials point out that at the new toll would bring the TZB in line with other Hudson River crossings, like the George Washington Bridge, due to rise to $14 in 2014, and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which costs $13.

The projected toll was laid bare at a community meeting in Ramapo last Thursday -- and Larry Schwartz, secretary to the governor, was careful to back into it.

Schwartz began by repeating the governor's assertion that a comprehensive bus rapid transit system would double the cost of the new bridge. "A full build-out of bus rapid transit on the bridge is $10 billion [leading to] a $28 toll in 2017," said Schwartz. He tried to use that number to make $14 look like a bargain.

It didn't work: the collective chagrin was immediate.

Media outlets ran headlines the next day using words like "tripling," and "steep." Opinion columns fumed that "the logic must be that if commuters already are soaked, they won't notice another wave of cold water." One local official said the toll hike would make the Tappan Zee a "bridge for only the rich" and announced plans for a town meeting on the topic. And Hudson Valley advocates who have been hoping -- so far in vain -- for a robust mass transit system said area commuters "could have few options in the face of higher tolls."

That same day, Cuomo's office sent out a statement implying that the $14 toll was a no-brainer. "On the cost the choice is clear," said Cuomo. "A new better bridge will require about the same tolls as just fixing the old bridge and about half the toll of a new bridge plus a new bus system."

But still: $14 tolls?

"I guess I was pleasantly surprised that the tolls weren't going to be higher," said Bob Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association.

Yaro said that even if the current bridge was not replaced, tolls would go up because the cost of maintaining the 50-year old structure is skyrocketing. "People are not happy that they have to pay increased tolls but this strikes me as a reasonable amount," he said.

The RPA has long advocated for better bus service across the Tappan Zee Bridge. But Yaro says the corridor doesn't need a 30-mile bus rapid transit system, at least right now, because the I-287 corridor has seen a significant drop in traffic over the past ten years. "It is a place where we don't have growing traffic congestion," he said.

Instead, Yaro recommended easing bus traffic across the bridge on either side, and creating a better connection to the Tarrytown Metro-North station. Caveat: building a ramp from the bridge to the station, as some have proposed, would cost too much. "But we've gotten assurances from the governor's office that they'll will work with us and other advocates to look at options to make those connections work, both in the immediate future and as the new bridge comes on line," Yaro said.

David King, an assistant professor of urban planning at Columbia University's graduate school of architecture, was similarly sanguine about a future with $14 tolls  -- even in the face of few mass transit options. "I think if the tolls are $14, that will substantially cut down traffic -- so it doesn’t matter that there's not going to be a dedicated transit lane [on either side of the bridge]," he said. Then he slammed the project's price tag. "We should be outraged just because it’s costing so much, whether it has transit or not."

Meanwhile, as this story was being written, yet another email came in from the Governor's office. “The elected officials of the Hudson Valley know best what their region needs, and on behalf of their constituents, they are calling for a new bridge to replace the obsolete Tappan Zee,” Cuomo said.