Cuomo Primed to Splurge on Jumbo-Sized Tappan Zee With Extra Lanes

Each span of the new Tappan Zee Bridge would be as wide as the current bridge, leaving room for future administrations to convert eight traffic lanes into ten or more lanes. Click to enlarge.

The Cuomo administration’s plan for the new Tappan Zee Bridge, described in yesterday’s draft environmental impact statement, is more than a missed opportunity to provide New Yorkers with faster and greener commutes using transit. It also foreshadows a potential environmental disaster, as the state prepares to spend huge sums on a span that can funnel much more traffic than the current bridge.

The new Tappan Zee will be more than twice as wide as the existing one. While the state government says the new bridge will carry the same amount of traffic as today’s bridge, the designs in the DEIS include enough pavement to carry far more cars, which could lead to more pollution and more sprawl, and will certainly incur hundreds of millions of dollars in unnecessary spending. The one silver lining is that a more transit-friendly administration could use the extra space to add bus rapid transit service in the future.

Together, the two spans of the proposed Tappan Zee Bridge would measure a full 183 feet across, while the current bridge is 91 feet wide. Where the current bridge has seven travel lanes, the new bridge will have eight. A shared bicycle/pedestrian path adds a few more feet. But the lion’s share of additional asphalt comes from the addition of wide shoulders bracketing the traffic lanes in each direction, and an additional “emergency access” lane in each direction.

The reason to make the bridge so incredibly wide, according to the DEIS, is to ensure that either span on its own can carry as many cars as the current bridge, in case one span has to close for whatever reason. “In the event that an incident or extreme event would require the closure of one structure, the second structure could remain open to traffic,” reads the DEIS. “To provide adequate capacity for such short-term traffic operations, each of two road decks would need a minimum width of 87 feet to provide for a minimum of seven temporary highway lanes, shoulders, and an adequate buffer for two-way traffic operations.”

The extra lanes are an extraordinary concession to the automobile, predicated on the idea that we should build roadways so that even a rare disaster won’t cause any reduction in traffic capacity.

Building each span with the full capacity of the existing bridge — up to 14 total lanes, if need be — is incredibly costly. A back-of-the-envelope calculation by Streetsblog based on the state’s 2006 financial numbers puts the cost of the emergency access lanes at around $825 million, or about one-sixth of the entire project budget.

Emergency lanes are unheard of on even the newest bridges. On the Port Authority’s planned Goethals Bridge replacement, Minnesota’s I-35 Bridge over the Mississippi River, Oregon’s proposed Columbia River Crossing, and California’s new Bay Bridge, no such emergency access lanes exist, only shoulders.

The DEIS suggests that the “emergency access” lanes won’t be set in stone: “The additional width, however, could be converted to HOV or BRT lanes in the future if appropriate studies deemed this corridor and alignment appropriate. If this conversion did take place in the future, emergency access could revert back to the use of the full shoulders.”

In other words, the space set aside for “emergency access” is primed to be converted into extra capacity: The only question is whether that will end up being used for buses or for cars. If a future administration wanted to run bus rapid transit across the Tappan Zee, the emergency lanes would provide space to do so. However, if a future administration instead caved in to motorists complaining of congestion and opened up the space to private automobiles, even carpoolers, the result would be more driving and more of the pollution and sprawl that comes with it.

There’s a long history of state DOTs taking spare room on highways and converting it into traffic lanes. Private vehicles have been allowed onto shoulders, sometimes only during rush hour, in Massachusetts, Virginia, Washington, Hawaii, Florida, and Minnesota, according to the Federal Highway Administration. The ability to turn “emergency lanes” into traffic lanes might be too tempting for New York State DOT to pass up. Quite recently, NYS DOT gave in to political pressure and let carpoolers use the bus lane on the Staten Island Expressway.

The State DOT has not replied to Streetsblog inquiries about the emergency lanes.

The problem with Cuomo’s Tappan Zee blueprint isn’t just that it preserves the transit-free status quo. Under the Cuomo plan, New York might be left with a bridge that’s ten lanes or wider, where it used to have a seven-lane bridge — a major commitment to continued car dependence. A future with no new transit is bad enough — Cuomo is also poised to spend huge sums on a project that could easily generate more traffic and sprawl.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Trust me, it’s a 12 lane bridge, with four 10-foot lanes where trucks and buses are not permitted.

    Now, the question is, how will they get 12 highway lanes on either side of the bridge?

  • Larry Littlefield

    Trust me, it’s a 12 lane bridge, with four 10-foot lanes where trucks and buses are not permitted.

    Now, the question is, how will they get 12 highway lanes on either side of the bridge?

  • Danny G

    If the Brooklyn and Queensboro Bridges used to have trains going across it, and that was converted to car lanes, why can’t you just lay down tracks on top of the car lanes and convert it to transit?

    Also, a 12′ shared path is really narrow for such a monumental span. Pretty weak.

  • Danny G

    If the Brooklyn and Queensboro Bridges used to have trains going across it, and that was converted to car lanes, why can’t you just lay down tracks on top of the car lanes and convert it to transit?

    Also, a 12′ shared path is really narrow for such a monumental span. Pretty weak.

  • J

    After the first traffic jam, drivers are going to be drooling over that extra lane. Unless they build transit on it now, it will never be used for transit, so they are basically proposing a 10 lane bridge but only analyzing the environmental impacts of an 8-lane bridge.

  • J

    After the first traffic jam, drivers are going to be drooling over that extra lane. Unless they build transit on it now, it will never be used for transit, so they are basically proposing a 10 lane bridge but only analyzing the environmental impacts of an 8-lane bridge.

  • Matthew from Brooklyn

    Larry – that’s exactly my question.  Where is the capacity on the bridge approaches?  This is a good test of whether GONYS (did I just coin that acronym for the governor?) and NYSDOT are serious about the “future BRT” scenario – will they reserve room for BRT on the approaches, especially at the toll plaza?    Or do they really think, deep down, that building enough capacity will prevent buses from ever being slowed down by future traffic?  

    I will also say this about extra capacity during “incidents” – they are frequent enough to show up in the googlemaps aerial.   This 5-car crash created a 2.6 mile backup!http://maps.google.com/maps?ll=41.070206,-73.890891&spn=0.001227,0.001725&t=k&z=19&vpsrc=6

  • Matthew from Brooklyn

    Larry – that’s exactly my question.  Where is the capacity on the bridge approaches?  This is a good test of whether GONYS (did I just coin that acronym for the governor?) and NYSDOT are serious about the “future BRT” scenario – will they reserve room for BRT on the approaches, especially at the toll plaza?    Or do they really think, deep down, that building enough capacity will prevent buses from ever being slowed down by future traffic?  

    I will also say this about extra capacity during “incidents” – they are frequent enough to show up in the googlemaps aerial.   This 5-car crash created a 2.6 mile backup!http://maps.google.com/maps?ll=41.070206,-73.890891&spn=0.001227,0.001725&t=k&z=19&vpsrc=6

  • Mike

    Why on earth wouldn’t the “emergency” lanes just start out as bus lanes?  Crazy.

  • Mike

    Why on earth wouldn’t the “emergency” lanes just start out as bus lanes?  Crazy.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I said that with the “emergency lane” usable as a bus lane, the only cost of the busway would be flyover ramps from there to Route 119 and Route 9W on the two sides of the bridge.

    I take that back.  

    If you are going to have four general traffic lanes flowing into three lane highways, they there ought to be a flyover ramp to those roads for general traffic anyway. That could be a joint flyover ramp with the buses, as long as the buses get their own lane on it.  That would mean the cost of a busway would be LESS THAN the full cost of the flyover ramps.

  • The Truth

    How do they think they can get away with a 12′ shared use ped/bike path?  That doesn’t meet AASHTO standards, which recommend a minimum clear width of 14′ (an effective width of 10′, plus a clear width of 2′ on each side).

    It is preposterous to propose such excessive provisions for cars while failing to meet the minimum standards for bikes and peds.  Often there are arguments that the cost for proper bike/ped facilities are excessive, but they’re hanging so much pavement here there’s no possible argument they could make!

  • Elaine Benes

    Oooh! Luxury Lanes

  • Gjdagis

    I can imagine the tolls on this monstrosity! Another excuse to rob the citizens. Pretend like they are doing us well while they are GIVING it to us!

  • Andrew

    Thank you, Andrew Moses Cuomo.

  • Dimi

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  • Alexander Vucelic

    current levels of traffic spread out over 30 years suggest a $20 toll to cover the cost and minimal maintence