Cuomo Cares More About the New Tappan Zee Bridge Than NYC Subways and Buses

The governor has spent most of his time in office consumed with building a huge double-span highway bridge, while New York's transit system slides into catastrophic disarray.

Photo: Governor’s Office/Flickr
Photo: Governor’s Office/Flickr

For the better part of his nearly seven years in office, Andrew Cuomo has been consumed with building a replacement for the Tappan Zee Bridge, which he wants to name after his father Mario.

Today Cuomo cut the ribbon on the first of two spans that comprise the new bridge, setting off another round of fawning coverage in the New York Times. The governor is getting a lot of credit for building the bridge on time and under budget, but the real story of the new Tappan Zee is about misplaced priorities and Cuomo’s edifice complex.

There’s a lengthy archive of Streetsblog reporting about the problems with the replacement bridge — the excessive size and scope, the lack of transitways, the opaque finances. I won’t recap everything at length here, but I do want to encapsulate why this bridge project speaks to everything that’s wrong with Cuomo’s infrastructure policies.

The bridge succeeds as a visually impressive structure and monument to the Cuomos — and that’s it.

As a piece of the regional transportation system, it fails. With more capacity for driving but little in the way of transit improvements, the bridge is going to feed sprawl in New York’s northern suburbs.

As a use of scarce public funds, the new bridge is also a failure. Throughout the planning and construction process Cuomo has desperately insisted that this $4 billion project won’t lead to higher tolls, which are now set at $5 cash/$4.75 E-ZPass eastbound. He has searched high and low for government financing and other subsidies — at one point going so far as to seek $500 million in clean water loans to build his highway bridge, a request that the EPA rejected.

Cuomo is promising a toll freeze on the bridge until 2020. More than anything else, what makes that possible is $2 billion in one-time bank settlement funds that Cuomo directed toward the project and the Thruway Authority to suppress the price of tolls.

Think about that for a moment. Cuomo isn’t spending that $2 billion to build the bridge — he’s allocating it so the drivers who use the bridge don’t have to shoulder the cost of construction. It’s a gigantic giveaway to suburban motoring.

At the same time, New York City’s subway and bus service keeps getting worse. Solving all the city’s transit problems isn’t a simple matter of spending $2 billion, but it’s telling that Cuomo chose to spend that windfall cash on a highway bridge named after his father and not, say, upgrading subway signals or implementing technology that enables all-door boarding on MTA buses.

Out of $9 billion in bank settlement funds, Cuomo has given zilch to New York City transit.

I admit I’m glancing over one other good thing about the new bridge — it cost less to build than the budget called for. But that also stings for transit riders, in its own way. High costs are a huge limiting factor constraining transit capital improvements in NYC. If Cuomo can enforce cost discipline on bridge construction, he should be able to do it for transit projects too.

  • reasonableexplanation

    Question about the cost/paying for the bridge:
    The bridge costs $4 billion, and has 135,000 cars cross it daily.

    The current toll is $4.75.

    That means at the current rate (ignoring truck rates, etc) the bridge will be paid off in roughly 17 years… that’s not bad right?

    Add a buck to the toll and that falls to 14 years… seems easy enough.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The toll is one-way. Are the 135,000 cars two-ways? Then you are talking about 28 years, not including interest. A realistic goal is paying off a 30 year bond with higher tolls.

    The question is this. The existing bridge opened in 1954, and a 30-year bond used to pay for its construction would have been paid off in 1984. So where did all the tolls for the next 33 years from 1984 to the present go? Not to transit, unlike TBTA and Port Authority tolls.

  • reasonableexplanation

    I believe that number is the number of vehicles that went through the toll plaza, so one way?

    And that second bit is a great question!

  • William Lawson

    Ayn Rand’s chapter “The Monument Builders” comes to mind.

  • Joe R.

    The way you usually run calculations like this is to first look at the cost of borrowing that money. At 3% the interest alone on $4 billion is $120 million. Assuming the cars are own-ways, then that’s $234 million in tolls less whatever it costs to collect those tolls. I’ll guess 10%, so you’re netting about $210 million. That means the loan amount is only going down by $90 million the first year. As the principal decreases the outstanding loan will drop by more each year. Over the life of the loan, the average amount the principal will drop is (90+210)/2 (average of first and last years), or $150 million per year. At that rate it’ll take close to 27 years to repay the loan. Oh, and I didn’t even bother figuring maintenance costs into this. It’ll be low the first years but higher in the future. Overall I wouldn’t be surprised if the tolls barely cover the cost of collecting them, maintaining the bridge, and covering the interest payments. That basically puts the taxpayers on the hook for the $4 billion principal.

    I may have found this entire project less objectionable if tolls covered the full cost (and also if it included transitways). As things stand now, this was a big giveaway to upstate, plus a big f*ck you to NYC.

  • kevd

    To the NYS thruway authority, right? I mean, it is where it is specifically so that its toll revenue would go only to NYS and not have to go to the PA.

  • kevd

    No, that’s totally traffic per day, not traffic going through the toll plaza.
    A 30 year bond on $4 billion (3% interest) COULD be paid off with tolls of $4.75 – but only if it were imposed both ways.
    Which actually, is way better than I would have expected.

  • Fool

    The bridge was a design build contract.

    So the cost discipline came from a law that labor does not like and has actively lobbied against for MTA Capital Construction. If Streetsblog wants to lobby for more Capital Construction productivity and activity, allowing the MTA to award design build contracts is where to start. CBTC would have been perfect for design build roll out.

    Besides throwing more money at MTA is not actually going to improve service. The temperature in the tunnels is about to go down, the failure rate will fall, and we will all forget about the MTA’s inability to run a subway until next June when the temperatures rise and cause stuff to break.

  • c2check

    Yeah but does the new Tappan-Zee Bridge have ~?USB PORTS?~ ???

  • Larry Littlefield

    Perhaps if the bridge had taken 15 years and cost $10 billion, with sky high tolls to reflect altho, the extra $6 billion could have been diverted to the mulitemployer construction pension fund.

    Instead of having the MTA pay for private sector workers to got retroactive pension increases in exchange for allowing pension underfunding allowing higher executive pay.

  • bolwerk

    I don’t recall the details anymore, but several years ago basically what you said all came out. Everyone shrugged because debt is okay when it’s not going to help inner city residents who use green, or at least green-ish, transportation modes.

    The bridge pretty well became useless when they dumped the rail component. The current crop of legislators is so mind-mindbogglingly bland they didn’t even question that, and to my knowledge nobody in the media does either.

  • HamTech87

    The Times coverage is so over-the-top. I’m guessing that Joe Berger takes the TZ bridge frequently.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Just confirmed it using the @PMT function. The $4 billion would require a little over $200 million per year to pay off, or 40 million toll payers per year at $5 each.

    Might have to be $10 one way to avoid toll shopping vis a vis the GW.

  • kevd

    Google’s mortgage calculator gave me $16 million and change a month. Or $4.16 per 2010 vehicle crossing (assuming weekends are the same total, and all are passenger cars – neither of which is true).

  • Rex Rocket

    Toll revenue went towards the new “I Love NY” signs on the Thruway.

  • reasonableexplanation

    Yup, seems like a fair deal to me!

  • AMH

    I think this twitter meme belongs here:

    pic.twitter.com/uZyMnejVq0— Nicholas Russo (@clickonnick) August 24, 2017

  • AMH

    It should at least have wifi. I’m guessing that’s a rare commodity that far north, so it could be quite a draw.

  • neillevine

    Both Cuomo and deNlasio seem to habe no plan

  • neroden

    It has been mentioned before that Cuomo specifically killed plans to run rail across the bridge. Because cars.

  • Michel S

    DO THE MATH
    SHOW YOUR WORK
    These are two basic rules that the public should always expect from their leaders. Too often, they fail the test, and the media never challenges them on this. It’s up to the public at large then to follow the money and see where it goes. Nice work.

  • Sksk

    I saw a twitter post that asks if this bridge was Cuomo showing his mfinger to NYC.
    Check the video of Cuomo speech when he says, under budget, pedestrian cyclist ready etc .. He is actually showing his middle finger!

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