The current bridge plan includes dedicated bus lanes, but no timetable for bus rapid transit on either side of the Hudson River crossing.
Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino says that discussion is now back on the table. "Unless there was going to be some transit options," he said, "this bridge would just have the same old congestion and pollution and problems that the current one does. It would just look shinier."
Astorino has been pushing for a 12-mile BRT corridor. He said that he, Rockland County executive Scott Vanderhoef, and Putnam County executive MaryEllen Odell have been in talks with the governor for a month.
The transit task force will make recommendations within a year.
The county executives sit on a council that must unanimously approve the Tappan Zee Bridge plan to make it eligible for federal funding. That vote had been delayed, but now it is expected to move ahead quickly.
Governor Cuomo has spent the summer lining up local support for the bridge. On Thursday, he sent out a delighted email trumpeting the executives' support.
"Building a new, better bridge to replace the Tappan Zee and ending the dysfunction that has delayed this project for over ten years has been a top priority since I took office,” he said. “County Executives Robert Astorino, Scott Vanderhoef and MaryEllen Odell have consistently supported our efforts to replace the Tappan Zee and I am pleased that they are pledging to vote for our plan to build a safer, transit-ready bridge that will reduce congestion, provide a dedicated bus lane, and create tens of thousands of jobs. We will continue to work with local leaders and stakeholders as we move forward with one of the biggest and most critical infrastructure projects in New York.”
Thursday's announcement also won support from another corner: advocacy group the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, which has long been pushing for mass transit options for the new bridge. The group's executive director, Veronica Vanterpool, said in an email that "this bridge project is taking a turn for the better." She added: "A firm commitment from Governor Cuomo’s office for dedicated bus lanes on the span from day one is a real victory that will improve commutes for bus riders and drivers from the day the bridge opens. But, without additional measures for bus rapid transit in the future, the bus lanes themselves will do little to address the mobility needs of the I-287 corridor. This initial investment shows that the governor’s office has moved beyond the rhetoric of “transit-readiness” to a concrete transit provision."
If local New York politicians are working through the five stages of grief over the lack of a comprehensive mass transit system for the new Tappan Zee Bridge, they might be moving closer to acceptance.
"We're basically all on the same page," said Astorino.
His remarks come after Rockland County executive Scott Vanderhoef told TN last week that he had dropped his insistence that a full bus rapid transit system be built now.
Vanderhoef said today on the Brian Lehrer Show he understood the financial realities. "I agree with the governor's comment: ultimately, this is being paid for by our residents in some form or fashion. It's just you can't think only short term... it has to be long term."
Brian also asked if the old bridge would be retained as a bike/pedestrian bridge. "No," said Vanderhoef bluntly. "You'd have to pour an awful lot of money into that existing bridge."
Listen to the entire 16-minute interview below.
At a press conference today announcing the state's revamped 511 travel information system, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo reiterated his position that putting transit over the Tappan Zee Bridge could double construction costs -- which would then be passed on to toll payers.
"Money matters," he said. "If you asked toll payers do they wanted to pay double the toll, my guess is the answer would be no. If you asked the taxpayers do they want to pay $10 billion, the answer would be no."
But mass transit advocates dispute the state's cost estimates of adding bus rapid transit (BRT) to the new bridge.
Veronica Vanterpool, executive director of Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said New York had never accurately analyzed the cost of a simple BRT system and was relying instead on old projections for a much more elaborate project. “If the state's BRT cost analysis only considered installing bus rapid transit in the context of a massive I-287 overhaul, it made a mistake," said Vanterpool in an email. "You don’t need to dig a tunnel to paint a bus lane."
Westchester County executive Rob Astorino echoed that thought Tuesday. In an appearance on the radio show "Live From the State Capitol," he said: "If the average mile is considered to be about $166 million, according to the state, that is about ten times more than the average bus rapid transit mile in the nation."
But Cuomo said during his press conference that his problem was not with the idea of transit, but with the reality of paying for it.
"In theory is a mass transit system across the state a great idea? Of course, of course," he said. "You're not going to get anyone -- certainly the people around this table -- to say anything but they support a robust mass transit system all across the state. The question then becomes the reality of the situation, and the cost of the situation. And to put in a bus system now, for Rockland County and Westchester would roughly double the cost, from five billion to ten billion. And that is a significant increase, and one that I believe is not advisable at this time."
Cuomo said the financing plan for the bridge had yet to be finalized, but one thing was certain: "The basic source of financing will be the tolls," he said. "So the bulk of the financing will come from the tolls. And that's why whatever the cost of the bridge is, whatever you add on is going to be financed by the tolls. And it's very simple at one point. We make it complicated. You can build whatever you want. You then have to pay for what you build."
When pressed about tolls, he said "we'll have it broken down to what the toll will go to for various options, and then the people will decide."
The governor has long said mass transit on the bridge would lead to toll hikes -- and that if the counties want it, they can pay for it. Earlier this year the governor's press office sent out an email saying "the Counties have no plans in place to construct these 64 miles of mass transit. The entire bridge is only three miles and will support mass transit, if and when the Counties build it."
In a phone interview with TN Tuesday, Rockland County executive Scott Vanderhoef called that type of thinking "cynical" and said a BRT system would serve more people than just Rockland and Westchester. "I don't buy that argument. It's a thruway system, a federally-funded, state-funded thruway system. And ultimately you're talking about multiple jurisdictions that it would have to serve...so it's a regionally important area."
"But," he said, "I'm also not insisting that [BRT] be built now." What he wants "is to move people across this bridge, a new bridge, in any way that you can...to keep them out of cars." Vanderhoef said he was encouraged by the state's recent announcement that it would create rush-hour bus lanes on the new bridge.
Vanderhoef and Astorino -- along with Putnam County executive MaryEllen Odell -- have asked the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council to defer voting on the Tappan Zee Bridge until they get more information about the project. "No one disagrees that the bridge needs to be replaced," Vanderhoef told TN. "The question is: what are you buying?" He said the final environmental impact statement, which will be released later this summer, would address those issues.
A NYMTC vote on the project -- which is necessary in order to secure federal funding -- could take place in September.
You can listen to Governor Cuomo's remarks below.