When it comes to building a new Tappan Zee Bridge for drivers, the Cuomo administration says there’s no time to waste and only a gold-plated, super-wide span will do. But don’t ask them how they plan to pay for it, or how high tolls will be.
When it comes to building a new Tappan Zee Bridge transit system, the Cuomo administration says it needs years to meticulously craft every detail with local communities and can’t afford even relatively cheap improvements. They’re happy, however, to throw around scary numbers about how high tolls will go once you build some bus infrastructure.
It’s a brazen double standard, one crafted to make the case for a bloated highway bridge while finding a way to get to “No” on transit.
Take, for example, the administration’s attitude toward the need for public outreach on the one hand and speed on the other. “Anybody who drives over the TZB on any kind of frequency knows on a Friday night or a Sunday night or god forbid if there is an accident on the bridge, you literally could be stranded for hours,” said Secretary to the Governor Larry Schwartz at a forum held by the Journal News this morning. “It’s needed. The time is long overdue. We’ve studied the bridge to death.”
Compare that to the administration’s position on adding transit. When asked whether there was even a timetable for studying a bus rapid transit system, Schwartz responded, “We don’t have a plan yet. To have a plan would mean we’ve excluded the input of County Executive Astorino and County Executive Vanderhoef and all the other stakeholders.”
Schwartz said that to add a BRT system, the state would have to study the economic impact of transit on local businesses, the impact on quality of life for residents, and the potential for transit to create additional traffic. Mark Roche, an engineer consulting for the state, said they would have to re-do the origin and destination surveys that were used to estimate demand for transit, given the changes to the region in recent years. “You got to take your time and come up with all the answers,” said Schwartz.
State officials showed a similar double standard when it came to the cost of new infrastructure. For the highway elements of the bridge, there was no attempt to justify the price tag.
In response to a question from Streetsblog about how the state could claim not to be able to afford even incremental transit improvements while spending huge sums to double the width of the bridge and add automobile capacity, Schwartz replied, “I don’t think anybody argues the point that the current bridge is unsafe, it’s obsolete, it’s an achilles heel to the economic viability of the region and it needs to be replaced.” He added, “It’ll have an additional lane, but also shoulders, the emergency vehicle lane, which’ll allow for a dedicated bus lane.”
Roche even went so far as to claim that the new bridge wasn’t really bigger than the old one, at least from a traffic engineering perspective. “We’re not adding lanes to the bridge,” he said. “It operates as an eight lane bridge.” Roche argued that because the current span uses a reversible lane to have four lanes in the peak direction at all times, it essentially has eight lanes rather than seven. Then the rest of the additional space is all shoulders. “We’re not adding lanes, we’re just making it operate as it should.”
In contrast, for transit every proposal was couched in dollar terms. “It was very cost-prohibitive,” said Thruway Authority Executive Director Thomas Madison. Schwartz said that building a BRT system from Suffern to Tarrytown, using new viaducts blasted through rock along I-287, would cost $1.9 billion. “Somebody has to pay for that.”
Moderator Nancy Cutler called the administration out for trying to have it both ways on the Tappan Zee Bridge herself. During a presentation earlier this morning, she said, one official claimed that if the state built transit, “We’re talking about $30 tolls.” How can that be, asked Cutler, when “there’s been no talk about what the tolls would be in the current plan, going forward with just the four mile bridge?”
Schwartz admitted that there was no firm estimate for the toll on the new Tappan Zee — the bids coming in on Friday and the state’s pending TIFIA application would affect the number, he said — but didn’t rescind his estimate of what tolls would be with transit.
Cutler also asked why the state continued to argue that Westchester and Rockland Counties should have to pick up the cost of a transit system. The state, of course, is paying for the new roadway. Schwartz pointed to the fact that Metro-North stations are currently maintained by local governments and continued to worry about the impact of providing transit on local property tax rates.
Today’s forum did not show an administration even-handedly weighing the costs and benefits of spending on highways versus transit. Rather, on each question, all the benefits of a new, extra-wide roadway were stacked against the costs of transit.