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Kate Slevin

Transportation Nation

New York State: No Reason Not To Replace Tappan Zee Bridge

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Tappan Zee Bridge, which crosses the Hudson River and connects Rockland and Westchester Counties (photo by Patsy Wooters via Flickr)

UPDATED WITH NYS DOT COMMISSIONER JOAN MCDONALD'S COMMENTS: New York State says there are no serious environmental challenges facing its planned replacement of the Tappan Zee Bridge.

The draft environmental impact statement (DEIS), which was posted on the state's Tappan Zee website Tuesday, signaled no major changes in the state's approach to replacing the aging span. It states the bridge should be replaced -- and transit won't be immediately included.

"The Replacement Bridge Alternative would not preclude future bus rapid transit (BRT) or commuter rail service at the Tappan Zee Hudson River crossing," says one paragraph of the DEIS (see page 20, here), "but such a proposal would be subject to a separate environmental review and approval process at the time that it is foreseeable and financing is available...Therefore, the Replacement Bridge Alternative would not adversely impact transit services."

Speaking by phone, Joan McDonald -- the New York State Transportation Commissioner -- said that the state's position hasn't changed.

"That is what we have said all along...Our position has always been you cannot build transit until you replace the bridge," she said. "We don’t think it is financially feasible at this time for transit to be included, but we are building a bridge that will last for 100+ years, so at some point in the future, if the ridership numbers, and the fare box recovery ratio warrant the investment, we will make sure that it happens. So we are building the bridge to not preclude it in the future. And what that means is the footings will be spread appropriately and there will be enough weight-bearing capability on the bridge to hold transit in the future."

When asked if there was anything anyone could say at the upcoming hearings that would change the state's position, McDonald answered “most likely no, but we will see what comes out of the public comment process.”

The DEIS is part of the regulatory process the state must follow in order to replace the bridge. It must address concerns made during the public comment period -- including at a pair of hearings held in October.

A quick scan of the DEIS revealed no major surprises. Under a heading entitled "unavoidable impacts" (p. 26, here), the DEIS states several properties would need to be purchased, the views of some Rockland County residences may be obstructed, and the oyster bed habitat in the Hudson River will likely be disturbed during construction. The state would also need to use a small portion of the Elizabeth Place Park in South Nyack for construction purposes. McDonald said that the state has paying close attention to the possible construction impacts on the river. "That is probably the area of most significance," she said, "that we don’t disrupt [the Hudson River] habitat."

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has made rebuilding the bridge one of his key issues. He toured the bridge before he formally took office, and in October of last year he announced the Obama Administration had granted the project expedited approval. Most recently, he mentioned it in his State of the State address this month.

In a press release today (pdf), the state DOT lined up a number of state officials and and labor leaders, praising Governor Cuomo's leadership.

Advocates haven't yet given up hope for bus rapid transit. Kate Slevin, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, says the DEIS doesn't adequately address why BRT isn't being included, and that her preliminary review of the massive DEIS documents had raised a number of other issues, including an "explanation of how this project fits into goals in legislation recently passed by the state to implement projects that are consistent with smart growth principles." Her group has put together a website calling for BRT on the bridge.

Cuomo has not yet announced how he plans to pay for the bridge's construction, estimated at over $5 billion, but he has said he intends to use a proposed infrastructure bank to finance it. In December, the state hired new financial advisers for the project.

The state has scheduled two public hearings about the DEIS -- Tuesday, February 28th in Nyack, and Thursday, March 1 in Tarrytown. Comments on the DEIS will be accepted until March 15 -- after which point the state will move forward on crafting a final environmental impact statement for review by the federal government.

"It’s an exceptionally exciting project," McDonald said. "It is a necessary component of our transportation network, and it will create many jobs during construction, and it’s critical for the economic vitality of the New York metropolitan region and the lower Hudson Valley."

The state has set a goal of breaking ground on the new Tappan Zee Bridge later this summer or early in the fall.

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Transportation Nation

When -- and Where -- Did Transit Over The Tappan Zee Bridge Go?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Governor Cuomo at the Tappan Zee Bridge on November 15, 2010 (photo by Richard Yeh/WNYC)

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.

The underside of the Tappan Zee Bridge (photo courtesy of Jessica Proud/Westchester County Executive's Office)

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.

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WNYC News

MTA Chief Jay Walder's Abrupt Resignation Leaves Many Stunned

Friday, July 22, 2011

WNYC

The head of New York’s transit agency abruptly announced he was leaving after less than two years on the job. The news took almost everyone by surprise, including some of his closest advisers. Top leaders in government and business learned only as the MTA was making the announcement public Thursday afternoon.

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