Cuomo Administration in Absolutely No Rush to Provide Tappan Zee Transit

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.

Governor Cuomo made it an urgent priority to get shovels in the ground for the new, double-span Tappan Zee Bridge, but he’s shown no urgency to provide good transit options for the Hudson Valley. Photo: Angel Franco/Newsday

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.

Madison was confident that recent downgrades from Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s will be reversed “once a clearly articulated plan of finance for the project is made public and made known,” he said.

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.

  • ohnonononono

    Cuomo is a political mastermind: he doesn’t really want transit across the bridge and is doing a good job of putting the whole conversation of TZ BRT into analysis paralysis. Although “both counties are interested in pursuing” bus lanes, I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that either county wants to pay for installing any new transit or providing much more transit service than currently exists.

    Rockland already runs the Tappan Zee Xpress buses across the bridge that connect to the Metro-North lines in Westchester. Maybe they’ll run some more for the new bridge, maybe not. It’s clear that Cuomo doesn’t care either way.

  • HamTech87

    On transit vs. highways, is Cuomo really any different from Chris Christie?

  • Michael Klatsky

    I can see the two on the combined democratic-Republican ticket in 2016

  • My prediction: this bridge will open in 2028 and not 2018. Who wants to bet?

  • djconnel

    This shows the distortionary effect of federal transportation funding. On interstate bridges it’s tricky, but with any federally funded transit project, the priority becomes spending as much money as quickly as possible rather than rational, cost-effective, infrastructure investments. Transportation is 99% local, and with the federal government as out-of-tune with local needs as it is, it’s important the focus of transportation funding match its impact and be local.

  • Anxiously Awaiting Bikeshare

    Better idea. Don’t build anything. We have enough car infrastructure.

  • Bolwerk

    I think you mean republican-Republikan ticket.

  • Michael Klatsky

    I don’t think the Democrats are any friends of mass transit.

  • Bolwerk

    Our last governor (what was his name?) was much more visionary than this clown scion of four governors back. He wanted to link the under-utilized commuter rail in that part of the state to the MNRR network east of the Hudson. The price was ridiculous, but the cost of BRT is no less ridiculous. It may not be the best use of scarce transportation funds, but it at least offers a vehicle for environmentally sustainable transportation so it’s the only way building a new TZB is remotely excusable.

    Worthless as BRT is in a situation like this, the only reason carheads like Cuomo entertain it at all is they perceive BRT lanes as convenient space that can one day be “reclaimed” by automobiles. In fact, that’s likely the only reason BRT gets so much free press these days.

  • Bolwerk

    He’s not a mastermind, he’s just a foot dragger. I doubt he cares one way or another about transit, he just wants his roadway.

    BRT is a marketing ploy here (well, it is anyway, but especially here). In relation to the TZB, it means either something resembling a Brooklyn-Staten Island “express bus” or a longer commuter bus ride, probably with an origin somewhere west of the Hudson and a destination in Manhattan. It’s enough to cow most transit advocates, but it isn’t an improvement over what we have now.

  • Bolwerk

    Indeed. Nor are they democrats.

  • JoshNY

    “Our last governor (what was his name?) was much more visionary than this clown scion of four governors back.”

    Thanks, I haven’t heard a good David Paterson vision pun in a couple of years now.

  • JK

    Yes on distortion caused by federal funds. Repayment of Tifia loans doesn’t start until up to five years after a road/bridge starts producing revenue. That means a governor can get years of political benefit from all the new jobs and be out of office before the repayment pain. Re: TZ transit, it’s bad fiscal and political math. In TZ corridor, motorists will produce lots of toll revenue, transit riders will require large operating subsidies per rider. Every dollar in transit operating subsidies is $14 dollars the state/Thruway can’t borrow. More construction jobs now are worth much more politically than 1/14th as many transit jobs later.

  • Bolwerk

    Sorry, couldn’t resist. But he really is like Tiresias next to the current guy. :-

  • douglasawillinger

    Awful design. No rail. No lower deck that was the most cost effective means for rail options. With stupid outward canted chopstick towers that cant into the median area hence probably blocking double-stacked rail freight cars, and an EIS that illegally excluded the lower deck from its cost benefits analysis. Cuomo should hang his head in shame, along with anyone voting for him.

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