Fend Off the Tappan Zee Death Spiral With a Bridge Diet

Options to reduce the excessive width of the two spans Andrew Cuomo is planning to build to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge. Cost savings are rough estimates. Image: Charles Komanoff

Bloomberg reports today that Governor Andrew Cuomo has charged the Thruway Authority with appointing a panel to  “find alternatives, revenue generators and cost reductions that reduce the potential toll increases” on the replacement Tappan Zee Bridge. The Cuomo administration revealed late last week that the superwide, transit-less replacement bridge — estimated to cost $5.2 billion — would require nearly tripling current toll rates to cover its costs. Apparently the reaction to news of $14 cash tolls and daily commuter tolls approaching $9 is causing some kind of reappraisal from the governor.

This could lead in a number of directions, including a worst-case scenario where NYC transit riders end up paying higher fares to indirectly cover bridge costs. But if Cuomo focuses on cost reductions, the risk of a Tappan Zee bailout won’t be so high.

It’s important to keep in mind that the problem with Cuomo’s Tappan Zee is not the high tolls — it’s the size of the replacement bridge he wants to build. Because the bridge is so unnecessarily large, it may be impossible to cover the costs with tolls — the “death spiral” scenario that analyst Charles Komanoff warned of in March [PDF].

The gold-plated highway bridge Cuomo has proposed contains two basic extravagances:

  • It would consist of two separate structures, one westbound and one eastbound, each of which could essentially do the same job as today’s Tappan Zee. It is intentionally redundant: The Thruway Authority’s “Project Alternatives” report justifies the double-span design in part by noting that “in the event that an incident or extreme event would require the closure of one structure, the second structure could remain open to traffic.”
  • Put together, the two spans would approximately double the width of the current bridge, even though fewer vehicles are expected to use it, thanks to rising tolls. The extra width comes in large part from adding shoulders and “emergency access” lanes — a feature unheard of on other bridges.
Each span of the new Tappan Zee Bridge would be as wide as the current bridge.

To avoid a Tappan Zee death spiral and get the bridge costs down to a manageable level, Cuomo may have to settle for a single span. Down the river, the George Washington Bridge is just one structure and seems to hold up well enough.

In his March paper, Komanoff also looked at cutting costs by shrinking some combination of shoulders, emergency access lanes, and the bike-ped path. The cost savings are rough estimates, based on the assumption that every 10 percent reduction in bridge width will cut costs by nine percent. The estimates suggest savings in the $1.2 – $1.5 billion range could be attained by shrinking the bridge’s extravagant width.

If Cuomo is serious about fiscal stewardship and protecting taxpayers, these are the options he’ll have to look at.

  • Anonymous

    Take a look at what $5.7 billion bought in Sweeden.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%98resund_Bridge

    Can we start by hiring that company and getting rid of any rules that do not apply there?  Sweeden and Denmark are hardly Texas.

  • Bolwerk

    Here’s your diet: rail tracks in both directions. Want more diet?  More rail tracks.

  • Ahab

    How does Cuomo give Rockland and Westchester drivers a big discount and pay for this whale? They’re talking about borrowing $5.2 billion for one bridge.  If NY is lucky we get $500 million gift from feds and borrow the rest. Figure $4.2 billion at minimum. How much are tax payers statewide going to pay for this? A couple billion? More? What do we get? $2 billion worth of fewer delays on the TZB for the Rockland/Westchester commuters who pay less than everyone else?

  • Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo

    Dear Fellow New Yorker,

    As I wrote to the Thruway Authority today, replacing the Tappan Zee Bridge will be the largest project of its kind in New York in decades. I am well aware that designing the bridge demands multifaceted criteria of arguably unique proportion. The natural environment will be protected. The steps that will be used include “bubble curtains” to protect fish.

    Please read my letter here. http://www.governor.ny.gov/press/08102012-cuomo-open-letter-thruway-authority-tzbridge

  • Larry Littlefield

    There is a question that needs to be answered.  Where did the $billions to rehab the city’s bridges come from?

  • Larry Littlefield

    My first comment yesterday — be careful what you ask for — is worth heeding.  Like many advocates, sometimes Streetsblog does take the 180 degree opposite stance to “ban all bikes to make more room for cars.”  And this case is one of them.

    Having the Tappan Zee Bridge go the way of the West Side Highway is not a fair and reasonable thing to push for.  Not should one forget that the reason the Thruway Authority faces a potential “death spiral” is that money was sucked out of it for the same reason that it was sucked out of the MTA — because the powerful felt needy in a present that is now the past, and sold out a future that is now the present.

    The question is, can one reasonably argue for a replacement bridge with four lanes in each direction, one for buses, with carpooling somehow encouraged?  Let the thing deteriorate to abandonment, and that will be just tough for those working east of the river who cannot afford to live there (such as some of my public employee relatives), is unlikely to sell politically in the short run.  In the long run, I suspect we’ll still need that bridge if only for trucks.

  • Larry Littlefield

    And to be specific with my complaint, using the toll argument to pander to the short term selfishness of drivers against the long term interest of anyone seems more like a political strategy than a principled stand.

  • Not sure I follow your complaint Larry. I’m not arguing against tolls. I’m arguing against the wasteful, redundant double-span bridge and its assorted unnecessary lanes. The worst-case scenario is clearly to build this monstrosity while shifting the costs away from the drivers who’ll use it.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The implication was that the tolls proposed were high.  They are not.  They’re just about what is being paid now downstate, except on the free East River Bridges.

    I agree that the worst case scenario is a 14 lane bridge paid for by others, however.

  • Ben Kintisch

    Meanwhile, I read in one of the upstate NY papers a headline: “Cuomo declares $14 tolls too high.” Whaaaat? Let me get this straight Mr. Cuomo – you want a ridiculous, super sized bridge, and you are SHOCKED that the tolls need to be raised to pay for it? It just makes no sense. The bridge is so expensive because you want a super-duper sized bridge. That’s it.

  • Anonymous

    The story here is the difference between Tappan Zee Bridge and the Long Island bridges — Whitestone, Throggs Neck, Triboro.  I had assumed they were similiar.

    Pretty soon, Long Island pols will be demanding lower tolls too.

  • jo

    Asone who has commented on the blogs, attended the meetings, etc…’the bubble curtain’, ‘noise barriers’, ‘high tech devices’,etc… This does not add up to the fact that the bridge the ‘gov. wants’ is too enormous, does not fit into the location, will harm the river environment, and greatly harm the air and destroy the quality of life for those living in these areas. Not only will it affect the villages and towns, a larger amount of traffic still needs to exit and enter from the same highways which equals greater delays than now experienced.  Did the ‘gov’ look at I287 and the nightmare that propels? Once again political aspirations are what takes priority…not the citizens.

  • I’m jumping in a bit late here, but there is a sound engineering reason to have two spans instead of one:  bridge inspections.  It’s much easier (and less impact) to inspect under a bridge that’s 80-90ft in width than a bridge that’s 150ft in width (as a single 8-lane bridge with 10ft shoulders and a bike lane would roughly be).

    Where Cuomo could come in with some cost savings is by narrowing the overlarge shoulders for “emergency use”.  Though I suspect that’s in there to allow for a future 5th lane in each direction, whether for buses/HOVs or for general traffic.  This is similar to what was built on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge near DC:  an extra-wide inside shoulder was designed and reinforced to accommodate future transit up to a heavy-rail Metrorail line (though more realistic would probably be bus/HOV lanes).

    Unfortunately, if you’re trying to reduce the scope of the bridge, as this article stresses, I expect the bike/ped shared-use path to become one of the casualties.

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