Hundreds of Rockland County residents packed a community room in the Palisades Center Thursday to get their first look at plans for a new Tappan Zee Bridge.
The replacement span is estimated to cost $5.2 billion. It will have eight lanes, leaving a space in the middle for future transit. It will also have other features the current bridge lacks, like a breakdown lane and a bike and pedestrian walkway.
But other details weren’t available --like how the bridge will be financed, or at what future date transit might be added.
Betty Meisler, who lives in Valley Cottage, said the plans didn't look that different from the current bridge. “I would say a bus lane would be helpful, because they do have the Tappan Zee Express (bus) that takes people from the Palisades Center over to Tarrytown, to the train station and to White Plains. But if they’re not even going to have that, what are they doing to improve the transportation problems that we have now?” M.J. Plachy, a resident of Upper Nyack, said she was grateful the new bridge will have a walkway and she would walk to the train station in Tarrytown. "But if there was a more reliable public transportation way of getting across the river," she said, "it would make my life so much easier."
She wasn't alone in that opinion. A number of local officials began their testimony by thanking Governor Cuomo for his leadership -- and then by asking that transit be prioritized. Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski stirred up memories of last year's ARC tunnel cancellation with some cautionary words. “Certainly," he said, "this could be Rockland’s last chance for having a one-seat ride into the city.”
Harriett Cornell, a Rockland County legislator, was applauded when she said “I think there’s a bit of a difference between not precluding public transportation and actively making provision for future transit in the construction.”
But Joan McDonald, commissioner of the New York State Department of Transportation, took issue with the characterization that the bridge lacks transit. “The transit has not gone anywhere. I think it’s very important to clarify that. We’re speeding up construction of the bridge, we’re not slowing down transit. The project that’s on the table now will be built to not preclude transit in the future, when it is financially feasible.”
She said it’s not just a financial reality, but a practical one. “Some of the transit issues, whether it’s BRT (bus rapid transit) or commuter rail, are very detailed issues that need to be resolved with localities, particularly in Rockland County. Where do you site bus rapid transit stations, where do you put parking, if you want to add another lane for bus rapid transit, that would entail property takings, and that will take two to three years to get there, and the costs are between two billion and four billion to build that.”
There are other pressures. The existing bridge is in such bad shape that officials say just maintaining it for the next ten years would cost $1.3 billion.
And locals are eager for the construction jobs a new bridge would bring -- as well as the future benefits of having a reliable structure. Al Girardi works for Local 137, the International Union of Operating Engineers. “For most of 2011 we’ve probably run at about 43% unemployment,” he said. “A lot of our members are running out of benefits.” Christopher St. Lawrence, the supervisor for the town of Ramapo, said he didn’t want to lose businesses to New Jersey or Connecticut. “We are always competing, whether we’re keeping Avon in Suffern, or LeCroy in Chestnut Ridge, or Novartis -- some of our big employers.” He mentioned that Pfizer pulled up stakes in Rockland County -- a major blow to the area. “We need to be able to attract those businesses. Having a Tappan Zee Bridge that is functional is key to being able to do that.”
The state will release a draft environmental impact statement in January, and hold public hearings the following month. Joan McDonald said she expects the federal government to issue a decision by August 2012; construction will begin shortly after.