Advocates: Tappan Zee Plans Violate State, Federal Environmental Laws

The draft environmental impact statement for the Tappan Zee Bridge revealed that the new bridge would be twice as wide as the existing span. But the DEIS left so many questions unanswered that it may violate state and federal law.

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s rushed plans for a transit-free Tappan Zee Bridge are shortsighted and increasingly unpopular. They may also be illegal.

Under federal and state law, the construction of a new Tappan Zee Bridge can’t proceed without going through environmental review. The state must analyze and then disclose the impact the project will have on surrounding communities; decision makers and the public alike have a right to be fully informed about the project.

“The DEIS is practically and legally deficient and contrary to the requirements of NEPA and SEQRA”

In official comments submitted Friday, some of the state’s top environmental and transportation organizations assert that the Cuomo administration’s draft environmental impact statement fails to disclose the required information. Mandatory analyses are either absent or entirely cursory, the groups allege. Clearly, the shadow of a lawsuit now hangs over the Tappan Zee Bridge project.

“The DEIS is practically and legally deficient and contrary to the requirements of NEPA and SEQRA,” wrote the conservation group Riverkeeper, referring to the federal and state environmental review laws, respectively, in comments that resembled a legal brief [PDF].

Comments submitted jointly by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, the Natural Resources Defense Council, NYPIRG, Transportation Alternatives and Good Jobs New York concurred [PDF]. At three separate points, the organizations repeat this phrase: “Without more analysis, the project cannot meet the environmental review requirements.”

The groups identify myriad faults with the DEIS. Some of the errors they highlight are technical: Traffic counts change dramatically from one chapter of the DEIS to the next, for example, calling into question the basic math underlying the state’s analysis.

Other omissions cut to the very heart of the environmental review process: the public’s right to understand the options before them. For example, the groups state that under the law, the state cannot eliminate alternatives from consideration based on cost without providing a rigorous financial analysis of the option being rejected. But state agencies have consistently refused to explain why their cost estimates for bus rapid transit are two to five times higher now than they were just two years ago, even as the Cuomo administration repeatedly invoked budget constraints to justify the elimination of transit from the bridge.

That is not legally acceptable, said Riverkeeper in its comments: “Here, again, the DEIS asks the public to ‘trust us’—it merely states these cost estimates without providing any studies or analysis to support these expected costs. To conclude that mass transit is not a reasonable and feasible alternative because ‘funding for the Tappan Zee Bridge/I-287 Corridor Project (components including bridge replacement, highway improvements, and new transit service) was not financially feasible at this time’ without providing more, constitutes a legally defective decision by lead agencies under SEQRA.”

Both sets of comments note that, despite the Cuomo administration’s promises, the DEIS offers no concrete assurance of how the new Tappan Zee design will allow for transit to be built at some point. The coalition led by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign lists a series of questions about the bridge’s transit-readiness left unanswered by the DEIS. “Are the shoulders – narrowing to 6 feet in one instance near the bridge’s landing – wide enough to accommodate a BRT system?” they ask.

Further, each group questions how a bridge twice as wide as the current Tappan Zee won’t lead to more auto traffic, as the state claims. Notes Riverkeeper, “Lead agencies repeatedly use this faulty assumption to short circuit, limit, or wholly avoid studying the environmental impacts to critical components discussed in the DEIS, such as transportation, air quality, energy and climate change, and indirect and cumulative effects. The complete failure to properly study these vital environmental impacts renders the DEIS legally defective.”

Each organization calls on the state to produce additional environmental analysis to rectify the gaps in its statements so far.

Finally, both sets of comments note that the state has not adequately analyzed the effect of construction on populations of Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon, both endangered species. It’s worth recalling that the first Governor Cuomo’s dreams of building a highway by the Hudson, known as Westway, were finally derailed by his administration’s own faulty environmental review. A federal court ruled that the state hadn’t taken account of Westway’s impact on striped bass. The highway project died and the money was used to save the transit system instead.

  • David Marcus

    Why not put the BRT on those oversized Emergency Access lanes? On the rare occasions when they’re used, the buses can use the general travel lanes.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Under federal and state law, the construction of a new Tappan Zee Bridge can’t proceed without going through environmental review.”

    No federal money, no federal EIS.  When the state really wants something done, and not ten years of litigation, the state legislature exempts it from SEQR too.  (Ie. new school buildings by the School Construction Authority, the extra lane in the LIE).

    “Why not put the BRT on those oversized Emergency Access lanes? On the rare occasions when they’re used, the buses can use the general travel lanes.”This is what I don’t understand.  It doesn’t cost anything to call this a busway.  What might cost a little, but would cost far more as a retrofit, is a separate ramp from that busway over to Route 119 in Westchester and Route 9W and 59 and Rockland.  With that in place, other elements of BRT could be added to those main cross county highways later, as funding permits.  There seems to be an assumption that in order to provide transit, the state has to pay for all the new facilities and operations right now.  But with BRT that isn’t so. The only other rationale I can think of for this is that they think they need a captive market to pay for the bridge.  If buses are faster and available, fewer people might drive, and the tolls might not pay for the debt service.

  • Stephen Bauman

    There’s a fairly good chance that the south span will never be built. Under this scenario, the north span will be built, the existing bridge will be destroyed and they will then discover that the north span has sufficient capacity to handle the vehicular traffic. This will result in eliminating about 40% of the projected cost.

    This will leave us with a replacement in kind bridge, with no walkway for pedestrians and bicycles and no spare lanes for BRT or other uses.

  • I agree with David. It would be such a simple solution to use the “emergency lanes” as the BRT lanes. It would placate many of the critics of the bridges missing transit. In reality, it’s not the best solution as the highways leading up to the bridge still lack BRT lanes and what is REALLY needed is a rail link, but it’s better than nothing. And if they don’t do that they’ll soon here the loud cry of drivers whining about the empty lane and why can’t they drive in it. You’ll probably hear that regardless, but at least with bus lanes there is SOME kind of use going on there.

  • Anonymous

    Where’s the pro rail campaign- eg the version of the new spans with a lower deck?

    By not talking about the lower deck, Streetsblog, TSTC etc are blowing a major opportunity 

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