After the state dumped transit in its rush to build a new Tappan Zee Bridge, Governor Cuomo announced a transit task force and promised to open the new bridge’s emergency shoulders to buses. But connections for bus riders on either side of the bridge remain a mystery, and the state continues to throw out overblown numbers as its task force is set to relegate land-side bus lanes to a study after the bridge opens in 2018.
The state had previously pegged the cost of bus rapid transit at a lofty $5 billion, ignoring less expensive options and even factoring in unrelated car lanes to inflate the cost of BRT. But why stop at $5 billion? After a panel discussion at an American Planning Association conference on Friday, state DOT Commissioner Joan McDonald tossed around BRT cost estimates three to four times higher. “It shouldn’t be understated that coming up with 15 to 20 billion dollars to build those systems is a huge challenge,” she said. “It depends on how you define BRT.”
Tri-State Transportation Campaign Executive Director Veronica Vanterpool challenged McDonald’s math. Tri-State has championed lower-cost solutions like bus lanes on I-287 and local streets, which both counties are interested in pursuing.
But even modest bus lanes on surface streets aren’t likely to get much attention from the state anytime soon. Vanterpool said the final report being prepared for the project’s transit task force will likely be released early next year and will recommend delaying a study of dedicated bus lanes until after the bridge opens in 2018. In the immediate future, the task force will focus on road efficiencies not specifically related to transit, like ramp meters, she said.
McDonald refused to discuss the task force recommendations. “We’re in the final stages of our deliberations,” she said. “When the task force finalizes its deliberations, we’ll all be happy to discuss it.”
In the end, the future of transit in the region boils down to Andrew Cuomo. “We’ve seen a commitment to building a bridge, but we’ve not yet seen a commitment to seeing that transit will be built in this corridor,” Vanterpool said. Tri-State is calling on the governor to commit to a timetable for implementing transit improvements and to appoint a second task force to oversee transit progress after the current group releases its recommendations.
On Friday, Tri-State is hosting a forum featuring BRT projects and experts from Cleveland, Connecticut, and elsewhere around the country. “We want to show how it has been done in other states,” Vanterpool said. “It’s important to show the possibilities and when there’s vision and determination and commitment to a goal,” Vanterpool said. “We’ve not yet seen that with this project.”
There’s also the question of how the new bridge will be paid for. With a federal TIFIA loan all but certain, the governor is set to announce a toll and finance task force before the end of the year, according to Thruway Authority executive director Thomas J. Madison.
In its loan application, the Thruway Authority said the cost of the bridge could rise to $4.8 billion, significantly higher than the rosy recent estimates of $3.9 billion. The pricetag for the double-span, extra-wide bridge has raised alarm about the possibility that the project will need subsidies from the state budget — perhaps draining revenue from New York City transit. The state has recently been walking a fine line, trying to reassure drivers that the rest of the Thruway system won’t subsidize the Tappan Zee, and that Tappan Zee tolls won’t rise in the immediate future.
On Friday, Madison suggested there would be no subsidies, but also left options open. “The bridge tolls will be commensurate with other Hudson River crossings. The bridge customers are ultimately going to be paying for the new structure,” he said, then added that the task force will also consider toll structures on the rest of the Thruway system. “We’ve always taken a systematic approach to our capital investments,” he said after the forum.
Vanterpool pointed out that the state has been aggressive about driving down the cost of the bridge through a design-build contract and securing a TIFIA loan. “The same thing can be done with various transit proposals,” she said.