Tappan Zee Cost Reveals Cuomo Style

News Analysis: Governor's Plan to Pay Isn't Clear

Tuesday, July 15, 2014 - 04:00 AM

Governor Andrew Cuomo and President Obama at the Tappan Zee Bridge (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images/Getty)

About 30 miles north of New York City, the aging Tappan Zee bridge arcs across the Hudson River at one of its widest points. Nine years after its projected life was over, cars still swarm over the bridge, and drivers can sometimes feel it shake.  

Construction for a new bridge began last year, just upriver from the old one. Look out from the water’s edge and you can see pilings for the new bridge all the way across the breadth of the Hudson.

President Obama visited this site with Gov. Andrew Cuomo back in May to urge Congress to pass a new transportation bill. Cuomo seized the opportunity to rhapsodize about a signature achievement. ”This is a bridge that symbolizes what was and what can be,” he said, his voice soaring. “This is a bridge from gridlock to bipartisanship. This is a bridge from paralysis to progress. And this is a bridge from yesterday to tomorrow.”

That other bridge, the old one, and the long-stalled process to replace it? “It was a metaphor for what had happened to our state," the governor said. "Political gridlock, government paralysis, fear and indecision had taken control."

Give the man credit, he gets things to move. He sped up the state’s environmental review, obtained a massive $1.6 billion federal loan, and got construction started at a time when elected officials across the country are at a standstill about how to pay for infrastructure.

But the bridge can also be seen as a metaphor in a different way. Because at every turn of the Tappan Zee project, Cuomo has been willing to use surprise, lack of transparency and a willingness to sacrifice grand vision for political utility. It's a metaphor for the way Cuomo governs.

Cuomo says — and he’s right — that the project was discussed for 15 years before he came along. But the old vision was much grander: “An entire corridor overhaul," said Veronica Vanterpool, of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a little wistfully. "Thirty miles of highway efficiencies, a new bridge, and a new transit system.”

The old vision was supposed to make it way easier for people get around the whole region by train, or fast bus. Anything but vast lines of cars with only their drivers, waiting to get through the tolls, burning up carbon-emitted fossil fuels.

But with a simple press release, to save billions, Cuomo compressed the vision to just the bridge. A state web site announcing the transit plans was suddenly taken down. Officials at Metro-North, which had worked on the project for a decade, privately expressed shock and outrage. Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, a Republican who is now running against Cuomo, said at the time that Cuomo was building “an 8-track bridge in an iPod world.”

Cuomo said then that the transit option was too expensive, would drive tolls too high. But he’s never said how high they would be, with or without the train. Reporters have been trying to get this information from the governor for years, perhaps no outlet more assiduously than the Journal News, which covers Westchester and Rockland, the two counties joined by the bridge. In order to get the loan, New York’s Thruway Authority had to explain to the federal government how it would pay it back.

So Journal News reporter Theresa Juva-Brown filed a Freedom of Information request for that explanation with the U.S Department of Transportation.

In a two-page letter, the feds denied Juva-Brown’s request, saying the Thruway Authority had advised them to do so. The U.S. Department of Transportation said Cuomo’s financial plan — the basis for a $1.6 billion loan request — was “hypothetical,” “misleading” and “inaccurate.”  DOT spokeswoman Nancy Singer didn’t quite answer how that could be. “New York met the requirements” for the loan, she said.

Cuomo’s next big move on the bridge financing — he called it a big innovation — was to announce just last month that he would borrow $511 million for the bridge from the state Environmental Facilities Corporation. The EFC is an obscure authority whose most recent projects include cleaning up drinking water in the upstate Village of Deferiet, population 290.

Cuomo announced the plan in a June 16 press release, three days before the corporation’s board was even briefed. Environmentalists and planners fired off a letter protesting the proposed loan. They called it a money grab from a fund meant to protect drinking water.

“We’re concerned not only on the substance of what they’re doing in New York State,” Peter Iwanowicz, a former state official and head of Environmental Advocates, said in an interview. “But we question the legality of them re-purposing funds that are meant for sewage clean-up to pay for bridge construction.

Cuomo officials protest that this is an entirely legitimate use of the funds. But Judith Enck, head of the federal Environmental Protection Agency for this region, isn’t convinced that the loan meets the requirements of the Clean Water Act, which partially funds the EFC. “We didn’t have much advance notice on this,” she said. “This was being advanced as a minor amendment. I’m not really sure that $511 million dollars reaches the definition of a minor amendment” to the EFC’s financial plan.

The obvious conclusion to draw from all of this is that Cuomo is keeping the inevitable toll hikes a secret so voters won’t be in an uproar before going to the polls in November.

But he may be overestimating that outrage. I spent a recent morning in Tarrytown, speaking to residents of both Westchester and Rockland County about the new bridge. Sure, there were  people who were angry about the possibility of tolls going up from a maximum of $5 now. But overwhelmingly, voters expressed a sighing reservation.

“I don’t feel too good about it but what are you going to do? It’s relatively cheaper than some of the other bridges," said June Chun, who works in real estate development.

“You  know, nothing's free in the world. Who’s going to pay for it otherwise?” added CPA Chris Cotter.

Mostly, there was a lament for the missing transit system. Actor Nathan Scherich called a toll hike “a reasonable outlay.” But he expressed a sense of loss that he’d never take a train across the bridge.

“It’s basically the same footprint but with a new structure.  I don’t know if that was the best concept. I certainly think I'd rather have it stand than to fall when I’m driving across it.”

Despite all this, Cuomo advisor Brian Coneybeare defended the project vigorously. “To suggest that the project has been anything less than inclusive and transparent is simply inaccurate,” he said in a statement.

And Cuomo certainly has bragging rights. He will keep us from falling into the river.


David L. Lewis


Comments [11]

John Gromada from Nyack

This story unfortunately has a false statement in it that needs to be corrected. There was never any "projected life" for the bridge. This trope has been put out by the Thruway Authority and Governor's office in order to justify replacing the bridge, but it is patently false. The TZ is one of the region's newest bridges, and needs maintenance which is expensive, but it did not need to be replaced.

The Journal News did a little investigation into this idea of the bridge exceeding its projected lifespan and found nothing to support this idea. See this article:

The New NY Bridge remains an expensive and unneeded environmentally irresponsible monument to Cuomo's national ambitions...

Jul. 16 2014 04:12 PM
Tal Barzilai from Pleasantville, NY

Even if mass transit could go on the new bridge where exactly would the tracks go? It's already expensive enough to build the new bridge without. In all honesty, this isn't needed, not to mention NJ Transit already serves that area over at Port Jervis, though it considered part of Metro North RR as well. BTW, the Palasides Mall has nothing that special, and much of what's there can be found anywhere else. Also, placing a new line could be difficult considering finding the space where to place the rest of the track besides on the bridge itself. At least be glad that there will be lanes with bus rapid transit on this new bridge, so you can't say that Cuomo is anti-transit.

Jul. 16 2014 03:54 PM
Elyse Knight from Piermont, New York

Who is this bridge for? Not commuters, who will still be out of luck getting into the newer, more exclusive Manhattan, not for the Hudson river, which is already suffering negative impacts, including mass death for Sturgeon, and not for the Hudson Valley, where our concerns about pollution, safety, traffic, noise and light pollution have been COMPLETELY ignored. The TZB project negligence has already killed two boaters. The barges are intrusive to navigation in both the Piermont and Nyack waters. So who is this bridge for? Can somebody capable of getting an answer ask this question? Because the people who have been attending the meetings and fighting the Thruway, the DOT and Cuomo have been ignored for more than a decade. Since construction on the new bridge has started, the Village of Piermont has been buried in silt. No evidence of any financial assistance to help the Village recover and/or be better prepared for the next storm, just a bizarre plan to eradicate phragmites in Piermont Marsh. Can someone do a follow-up story on how this project is impacting Nyack, Piermont, and Rockland County?

Jul. 16 2014 10:23 AM
Helen Spirer from Brooklyn

The mental midget planning for no mass transit on the new Tappen Zee is unbelievably short sighted. How about NYS making a real attempt to enter the modern age in redevelopment. Gov. Cuomo's words far exceed his actions. His pontifications are empty. He is just another political hack. Welcome to NYS.

Jul. 16 2014 06:28 AM
Roberto Gautier from Brooklyn

It's about time to take a closer look at the Brooklyn Bridge Rehabilitation Project from the point of view of non-sturgeon residents on both ends of the Bridge. [The new Tappan Zee Bridge is required to take particular pains to safeguard the endangered sturgeon swimming in the nearby Hudson River.] The work on the Brooklyn Bridge started in June 2010 with a de facto waiver of the NYC Noise Code that permits 24/7 construction schedules, including jackhammering, demolition and movement of heavy construction vehicles, that have been damaging the lives, health and sleep for thousands of residents. The area is a vortex of traffic, noise and air pollution.
Because the work on the Brooklyn Bridge is categorized as "rehabilitation," instead of "new construction," no study of the impact on peoples' lives was required. Instead, extensive traffic flow analyses were done. Recently, a facade wall at Washington and Prospect Street collapsed on a family that was taking shelter from a torrential rain storm. Structural integrity of the Brooklyn Bridge was reaffirmed after that accident. There's a lot to look at. Naturally, we hope that all is well.

Jul. 15 2014 08:51 PM
James Demers from New York

Swiping funds from one fund to pay urelated expenses elsewhere is nothing new to NYS politicians. They've been raiding the "dedicated" highway trust fund (your gasoline taxes) for years, to the tune of billions of dollars -- which is why there's now no money for the bridge.

I hope the Journal News sues the U.S. DOT to get their FOIA request . . . there's no legitimate reason whatsoever for hiding the information from the public. You have to wonder if maybe NYS did NOT meet the requirements, and if the DOT is now trying to cover up that fact.

Jul. 15 2014 07:08 PM
Tal Barzilai from Pleasantville, NY

As much as some of you may not like the amount that is used for funding on the Tappan Zee Bridge, this is a necessity. It is the only crossing that connects Westchester and Rockland Counties. How else does anyone expect to get across without this bridge? Honestly, I too felt that a new bridge wasn't needed and could be easily renovated, but it was built with materials that weren't designed to last, which was the problem. As for the tolls, I feel that they should be removed as they should have been long ago when the bonds were long paid off. Keep in mind that it's the tolls that go towards keeping transit fares low, which is why I feel that we motorists as always are known for getting the royal screw job.

Jul. 15 2014 03:04 PM
Westchester resident from Westchester

Gov is stealing $ from environment fund for bridge?? WTF. Meanwhile you can't swim in Rye Playland due to the sewage waste and go do some water testing in the Hudson today after yesterday's storm.

Our state is obsolete when it comes to technology and our roadways.

Cuomo has been the worst gov and with all his political hacks at state agencies nothing gets done.

Jul. 15 2014 11:40 AM

The whole thing is a waste. The old bridge is NOT going to fall down. The NYS DOT rated the bridge as "functionally obsolete", which is does not mean "structurally deficient". It means they want to add more lanes to the bridge. Awesome, that'll just create more traffic. Exactly what we don't need.

(See page 3, )

Building a new bridge without some kind of mass transit is a waste of money, plain and simple. This is just a political stunt for Cuomo and we're going to be left with a giant bill long after he's gone.

Jul. 15 2014 11:30 AM
jet0001 from NYC

A leader in the 21st c. would not "borrow" from the Environmental Facilities Corporation to construct a bridge that will add to carbon emissions while slashing mass transit initiatives that would lower it. It's archaic thinking. Cuomo's slashing of the project looks suspiciously like Christie's killing of a new Hudson River tunnel project – it freed up all kinds of funds to doll out as political perks. Previously Christie gave false figures on proposed toll increases, which when he and Cuomo later rolled them back made them look like heroes.

Cuomo gives blessings to the Democrat Senators who vote with the Republicans to keep control of the NY State Senate in Republican hands. If the Senate is Republican Cuomo doesn't have to make forward looking decisions that could hurt him nationally – he can always say the right would stop initiatives. And where is Cuomo's decision on fracking? You won't see it until after the election, if you see it then. Better to stall so as to not ruffle any of the electorate. This is no leader. This is a self-serving political midget with very large eyes for greater office.

Jul. 15 2014 11:23 AM
Rich K from Union City, NJ

Sadly, Andrew Cuomo may enter the history books as the shoulda, coulda governor, for missed opportunities like the Tappan Zee replacement. But perhaps it explains why he was silent on Gov. Christie's canceling the rail tunnel to Penn Station, misappropriation of PA funds for the Pulaski, and petty politics of the GWB, all of which directly affected NY interests. How could he comment, without opening himself to a barrage of criticism on the Tappan Zee? Shame, too, on the metro area's media (except WNYC) for not holding everyone's feet to the fire on this once in a generation opportunity. Instead, he's extending Robert Moses' distain for mass transit far into the 21st century, and the whole state will pay for that lack of vision.

Jul. 15 2014 09:18 AM

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