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Cuomo’s Crossing

Is the Governor of New York Building a Bridge to Yesterday?

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Photography by Matthew Godfrey

Published on Oct 1, 2012

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At George Sherman’s house, near the end of Salisbury Place, you’re so close to the Tappan Zee Bridge that you have to turn your head to see the whole thing. With the windows open, you can smell the bridge — a sweet mixture of river water, metal and exhaust. And when traffic thickens along the three-mile, seven-lane span that carries the New York State Thruway across the Hudson River just 25 miles north of New York City, you can hear the honking and the chorus of idling engines and the wheels of tractor trailers.

None of that is a problem for Sherman. The Tappan Zee Bridge opened in 1956, long before he bought a house in its shadow. Over the years, he has grown accustomed to the quirks and fond of the views. The same is true for his neighbors in the village of Nyack and the folks on the other side of the bridge, in the railroad suburb of Tarrytown. They’ve learned to live with, and even appreciate, the monumental structure as much, if not more, than the 135,000 drivers that cross it each day. So when the state announced a plan to address congestion on the bridge, and along the highway corridor that leads to it, Sherman and his neighbors on both sides of the river were quick to get involved.

That was 15 years ago. Some 280 public meetings and $88 million later, officials in Albany had a pretty good idea of what they needed to do: Build a bigger bridge with mass transit facilities. The new transit would connect a commuter rail line that runs along the east side of the Hudson River with residential villages and commuter-trafficked office parks along the 30-mile corridor that runs from Suffern to Port Chester. The surrounding communities and active participants like Sherman, who sacrificed thousands of hours and hundreds of evenings weighing in on the plan, felt fairly comfortable with what was to come and the years of construction it would take to make it a reality.

Then, with a short press release and a quick news conference, everything changed.

Nyack resident George Sherman attended hundreds of community meetings about the rebuild of the Tappan Zee. The public planning process was one of the longest in state history, yet Sherman isn’t sure it had any practical impact on the final plan.

In October 2011, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Thruway Authority unceremoniously scrapped over a decade of studies and community planning in favor of a fast-tracked bridge plan without a mass-transit component or broader corridor improvements. This new Tappan Zee could now go from the drawing board to the riverbed and up into the sky in a few short years. It will cost significantly less, the state has said, and it will create jobs now, Cuomo has promised.

But at what cost? By drastically altering the scope of the project, streamlining the review process, shrinking public comment periods and jettisoning other staples of America’s mega-project construction procedures — procedures that communities around the country have come to rely on and revile (in equal parts, it seems) — the Cuomo administration has alienated a number of local elected officials, advocates and neighbors like Sherman. People are worried that what’s to come will be obsolete and obtrusive even before it opens.

“Without transit on the bridge, we’re going to be stuck with infrastructure that doesn’t sustain mobility or economic growth in the region,” said Veronica Vanterpool, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

Observers from farther afield should take notice, too: What happens with the Tappan Zee Bridge — particularly as it follows so closely on the heels of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s sudden decision to abandon the ARC Tunnel to Manhattan — could be a bellwether of mega-project construction for years to come. With budgets shrinking and state and municipal economies at center stage, it seems the rationale for infrastructure investment is transforming. Increasingly, factors like the upfront cost of a project and its capacity for near-term job creation are gaining importance when measured against more traditional long-term goals like development patterns, commuter habits and even regional economic impacts. With a $5.2 billion price tag, a few high-profile players and a constituency that’s as concerned with long-term sustainability as it is with jobs and costs, the Tappan Zee Bridge, and the particular route it takes to get wherever it ends up, will set a course that others around the country are likely to follow.

The Empire State’s Costliest Bridge

The Tappan Zee Bridge that currently spans the Hudson River isn’t your average crossing. When it opened in 1956, it was a marquee connector that helped complete the 496-mile New York State Thruway, a massive toll-backed undertaking initiated by New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey in 1949. His vision for the road was to connect all of New York State’s major cities, from Buffalo in the west to Plattsburgh in the north to New York City in the southeast to the capitol, Albany. It was an ambitious task, made more so by the fact that it pre-dated the nation’s interstate highway system by a handful of years and coincided with the material shortages — most notably steel — created by the Korean War.

Despite those difficulties, the Thruway was a wildly popular project and hugely successful. In a 1954 speech, Dewey claimed it was “the world’s greatest highway,” so when it came time to build the highway’s pièce de résistance, its final and sure-to-be-most-popular crossing, nearest the state’s population center (and Dewey’s home in New York City), the stakes were high and the governor was heavily involved.

His involvement, however, led to a Tappan Zee Bridge that is more a result of political realities than of best practices, a polite way of saying that the structure Dewey built is poorly sited, lightly made and odd looking. On a map, it’s clear that the bridge crosses the Hudson at one of its widest points. It is, in fact, the second-widest spot on a very wide river, a spot that’s so expansive Dutch settlers named it the Tappan Zee — Tappan for a local Native American tribe, and Zee for “sea” in their native tongue.

The rational for this location had nothing to do with existing roads or rights-of-way or geology, but everything to do with bureaucracy and financing. Within 25 miles of the Statue of Liberty is the domain of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; any crossing inside that circle would be built, financed and tolled by them. That was incompatible with Dewey’s vision of a grand New York State Thruway, overseen by the New York State Thruway Authority and funded, in part, with bonds backed by Tappan Zee’s tolls.

And so the bridge ended up a few feet more than 25 miles north of Lady Liberty, and three miles long, the longest in the State of New York, and the most expensive as well. It included a cantilever section (to accommodate river traffic), two causeway sections, a series of hollow concrete caissons to support the structure in places where bedrock was hundreds of feet below the riverbed, and more than 27 miles of approach roads. Its construction decimated the small town of South Nyack and spurred hundreds of acres of sprawling low-density suburban development on both sides of the river. The job quickly proved lackluster, too, prompting hundreds of millions of dollars of repairs over the decades, questions of its ability to withstand even small-scale seismic events, legendary traffic back-ups and a starring role in the History Channel special, The Crumbling of America.

A Process to Match Its Scale

Talk of replacing the Tappan Zee began in the late 1990s. Barely 40 years after it opened to the public, the bridge was carrying 150,000 vehicles each day, 50 percent more than its capacity. Six-mile backups were a regular occurrence, and because the main span was built without breakdown lanes, even a minor fender-bender could spell a multi-hour delay. All that added wear and tear led to a rate of deterioration and a price tag for repairs that would have been unimaginable to the original engineers.

In 1997, then-Gov. George Pataki appointed a taskforce to examine the Tappan Zee corridor and propose solutions. The way to tackle traffic and sprawl, the reports’ authors concluded, was to rebuild the bridge with a bigger and better bridge, complete with tracks for commuter rail — Metro-North’s Hudson line out of Grand Central stops at the Tarrytown Station just one mile north of the bridge’s western terminus. The price tag for the project was $4 billion. Community members and regional reporters were shocked, skeptical and surprised.

Writing in the New York Times, David W. Chen observed, “Costly and controversial as it is sure to be, the project may never get off the ground. But whether it does or not, it has already signaled a fundamental shift in the way major public works projects are conceived, promoted and packaged, not just in New York but all over the country.”

State officials say putting bus rapid transit on the bridge is prohibitively expensive. Transit advocates say the region is severely underserved by mass transit and needs another such high-quality transportation option.

The Tappan Zee Bridge was built in the Robert Moses era, when highway projects were king and the automobile symbolized the greatness of America. Tidy suburbs and tidier yards were the end-all, be-all. Sprawl was still just a way to stretch out on the couch. But by the time Pataki set out to rebuild the Tappan Zee Bridge, America had seen an oil crisis, traffic was bad for businesses and long commutes were a reason to flee the suburbs. Transit, sustainability and local input were the themes du jour, and they found their way into Pataki’s vision for the future.

It was in this milieu that planning for the Tappan Zee’s rebuild started, and George Sherman and hundreds of other local residents began one of the longest community planning processes in New York State history. “As soon as the announcement was made, we started going to all of the meetings,” Sherman told me. With his neighbors, including the activist and folk singer Pete Seeger, he’d show up and speak out for a rail line as well as a tunnel instead of a bridge.

The sessions were held in school auditoriums and gymnasiums, at college lecture halls and around café tables. Between 2001 and 2008, New York State convened hundreds of these get-togethers, seeking input and calming concerns. Alexander Saunders, a friend of Sherman’s, self-described “river maven” and the loudest voice in the chorus calling for a tunnel alternative, told me he’d been to 200 meetings and “not enjoyed a cup of coffee at any of them.”

“They’re excruciatingly boring and incredibly insulting,” he said. “You get quite a few nuts and a few experts, and everyone is confined to two minutes.”

After eight years of hearing from nuts and experts and everyone in between, the state established its “preferred alternative” for the Tappan Zee corridor: A new bridge, with bus rapid transit facilities and, eventually, a commuter-rail line. It wasn’t a perfect plan. People on either side of the bridge understood that construction would disrupt their lives for many years, that some residents would likely lose their homes to eminent domain, that the Hudson River’s ecosystem would have to fend off the environmental impacts of pile-driving and dredging. And elected officials knew that the project wouldn’t be cheap. A 2008 report put the cost of the project’s BRT portion somewhere between $900 million and $2.5 billion, depending on how much heavy-duty infrastructure it included. The same report estimated the cost of the bridge and highway construction along the corridor to add up to $6.3 billion.

Despite these hurdles, the state began a Draft Environmental Impact Statement, concluding that, “Traffic forecasts clearly demonstrate a demand for travel in the corridor that cannot be accommodated by highway improvements alone. The need to include transit improvements in a dedicated right-of-way across the corridor is indicated.”

That opinion was echoed by a number of independent transportation experts at the time and resoundingly seconded in a 2007 Tri-State Transportation Campaign report that begins: “Traffic congestion on the Tappan Zee Bridge and along the I-287 corridor between Suffern and Port Chester is an obvious problem that is likely to worsen with time and cannot be solved through road widening or other highway improvements. As the Tappan Zee Bridge/I-287 Environmental Review moves forward, it is clear that mass transit must be a part of the Tappan Zee corridor’s future.”

Fast-Tracking the Future

On the morning of October 11, 2011, all that became background noise to a new reality: The Obama administration announced that the Tappan Zee Bridge was one of 14 infrastructure projects around the country selected for an expedited review or “fast track.” In theory, and for the other 13 projects — including an extension of L.A.’s Green Line subway toward the airport, and the replacement of an existing bridge over the Merrimack River in Massachusetts with a multi-modal crossing — that meant the federal government was working to “improve the efficiency of federal reviews needed to help job-creating infrastructure projects move as quickly as possible from the drawing board to completion.” For the Tappan Zee, however, it meant something very different.

The Federal Department of Transportation agreed to include the Tappan Zee in its fast-track program only if the state scaled back its original plan from a 30-mile transportation corridor to a relatively pared-down version, exclusively focused on replacing the bridge. According to the New York Times, the governor personally lobbied William M. Daley, the White House chief of staff, to help make the project a reality.

This about-face came as a surprise to everyone except the Cuomo administration officials who pushed for it behind closed doors. Vanterpool, who had been working with state officials and community groups on the Tappan Zee rebuild for years, said she was shocked when she heard the news: “In October of 2011, the Cuomo administration basically announced ‘We’re going to start with a new project, new data, new modeling. We’re going to start fresh; a draft EIS and a 30-day comment period for a $5 billion dollar bridge built without the transit we’ve been saying it needs.’ It was unprecedented.”

Under the new fast-tracked plan, the new Tappan Zee Bridge will have eight lanes, as opposed to its current seven and space for emergency vehicles and breakdowns. It will also be constructed using what’s called a “design/build” model of construction, as opposed to the more traditional “design/bid/build.” In essence, design/build means that a single entity, which is usually a partnership between contractors and engineers, takes control of an entire project — from the design and engineering through to its completion, minimizing the risk of cost overruns and frequently reducing construction time. While the streamlining strategy is increasingly viewed as an expedient alternative to the traditional publicly bid construction process, it is not without its critics.

“The decision to fast-track the project brought about what many advocates saw as a purge of significant research and thousands of public comments.”

Bruce Blanning, executive director of the Professional Engineers in California Government, is a fierce opponent of the method when used by the public sector. Though the common perception is that it saves money by consolidating the work, Banning said it actually raises project costs. “Design/build projects, at least here in California, typically double the cost,” he said. “Because it combines design and construction, it assumes a lot of the uncertainty and risk inherent in any project. When a design/build firm bids, they factor in that uncertainty and risk, and the price goes up.”

Closer to home, Donald P. Nims, former president of the New York State Society of Professional Engineers, has observed the same pattern. “A project in the Rochester area was recently withdrawn because the price of the bids was far above what was budgeted,” Nims said. “It required the DOT to rethink its approach.”

The governor’s inner circle is aware of these criticisms. Tom Madison, the New York State Thruway Authority’s executive director, who threw his support behind the state’s design/build plan said, “Generally, while their may be contingencies built into a proposal or calculations of financial risk, one of the principals is to unleash the creativity of the private sector. When you have public owners and public designers, you may limit your innovation.”

In addition to the design and process changes, the decision to fast-track the project brought about what many advocates saw as a purge of significant research and thousands of public comments. For years, these and other documents relating to the project were available for download and review on a state-sponsored website. Immediately after the governor’s announcement, every mention of public transit was taken down. With one swipe of a pen, it seemed, years of public planning were now entirely irrelevant.

A local transportation blogger, who goes by Cap’n Transit, first noticed the mass deletion, writing, “All that information? You don’t need it. Why would you? This is a new project. All the person-hours of research that went into those reports? All the money — your tax money — that paid for the research? Down the drain.” The state denies any of this was intentional. The documents were accidentally taken down during construction of a new website that would house the new project’s DEIS and comments, said a state official speaking on a condition of anonymity.

Tactical Intervention

The Cuomo administration vows it didn’t set out to get rid of transit on the Tappan Zee Bridge. As various state officials have said countless times since the announcement, “The governor is not anti-transit.” What he is, at least according to elected officials and advocates who have dealt with his administration during this undertaking, is focused and tactical.

“It didn’t surprise me that he went forward with something smaller,” said Tarrytown Mayor Drew Fixell, standing on the sidewalk in front of the village’s offices. “Governor Cuomo wants to get this project done in the fastest and simplest way. He wants to create the construction jobs, and he wants to cut costs. To get there, he’s cut all the really difficult parts out and streamlined everything that’s left.”

That streamlining came at a significant cost. Mass transit wasn’t just a popular idea in the community planning process but, according to its boosters and years of state-sponsored studies, a forward-looking, economy-stimulating, greenhouse-gas-reducing, traffic-minimizing addition to the region. Rockland County, which houses the bridge’s western terminus is — compared to every other county in similar proximity to New York City — severely underserved by mass transit. Whether in New Jersey, Connecticut or New York State, most counties that are within 25 miles of downtown Manhattan have at least a dozen commuter train stations, scores of bus lines and a handful of ferries. Rockland has only three train stations and a few buses that rarely keep to schedule and have wait times that often exceed an hour. The Tappan Zee Bridge corridor’s BRT project would have helped connect Rockland County’s 300,000 residents to the region’s economic centers, both in New York City and across the river at a strip of business parks known as the “platinum mile.” It would have also provided a high-quality transit option inside the county, according to proponents.

Tarrytown Mayor Drew Fixell was disapointed but not surprised when transit amenities were cut from the final construction plan for the bridge.

Regardless of mass transit’s appropriateness, the Cuomo administration has long maintained that there simply isn’t enough money to pay for a BRT system. Even that assertion has a heated debate surrounding it. Between 2008, when the state was still writing reports based on a 30-mile corridor with transit, and 2012, when the they published a Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the new bridge, the price of BRT in the project doubled, going from somewhere between $900 million and $2.5 billion to somewhere between $4.5 and $5.3 billion. That’s roughly $173 million per mile, six times more expensive than any other BRT project in the U.S.

Mark Roach, an engineer working on the project, explained in a PowerPoint presentation that those figures are not simply for a BRT system, but the widening of a highway and other high-cost undertakings such as excavating a cliff.

Vanterpool, who supports BRT on the bridge said, “The only way they could arrive at a number like that would be for an absolute platinum-standard design, and even then it seems high.”

When asked if a BRT system could be put in place for less, a state official with detailed knowledge of the project and the BRT studies said, “Yes there probably is a cheaper way to do it. And it doesn’t involve the corridor, it involves local routes.” The official, who spoke on a condition of anonymity, continued, “We’ve only studied and priced out the corridor, which might be the wrong place and the most expensive.”

Vanterpool and a handful of advocates believe there’s something to the state’s decision: “It’s a big number that serves as a justification for dropping BRT,” she said. “But let’s remember, there’s still no financing plan for this project. They need to find funding. Finding more money to pay for transit is not about what’s possible, it’s about priorities.”

That’s an argument familiar to BRT advocates across the country. Whether in Los Angeles, Nashville, Minneapolis or one of the other dozen cities actively seeking to improve their mass transit system’s capacity and quality, priorities — not budgets — are the crux of the debate. “Fiscal austerity is shining a bright light on infrastructure projects, and that’s forcing a new conversation around metrics and measures and what’s really important,” said Robert Puentes of the Brookings Institution. As New Yorkers like Vanterpool are fast discovering, what’s really important to elected leaders isn’t always what’s important to everyone else.

Phantom Toll Increase

From the moment the Tappan Zee Bridge project was announced, there have been persistent questions about how the government will pay for any and all of it. Since the economic downturn, New York has been tightening its budget belt while looking for ways to create jobs. Cuomo’s Tappan Zee project is a prime example of that effort — his administration has said the project will create 45,000 jobs — but like so many other kindred infrastructure projects around the country, it has hit a fair number of hurdles along the way.

One of the most significant was the federal government’s decision last April to pass on the project’s application for a $2 billion low-interest loan through the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act. In a letter to New York State, the director of the loan program wrote, “the Department does not have sufficient budgetary resources to invite an application for your project at this time,” and encouraged the state to apply again. At a press conference following the announcement, Howard Glaser, the state’s director of operations, told reporters that the budget for the first round of funding was small and that the Tappan Zee Bridge would be considered for future rounds. According to a state official, the Cuomo administration is currently drafting a letter of intent for a second, larger round of federal funding.

That announcement triggered an avalanche of worry that hit towns, editorial boards and local elected officials hard. “There has been a vacuum of information surrounding the project’s financing,” said Fixell, the Tarrytown mayor, “and it’s getting filled with all sorts of fears.”

It certainly was: At one point, talk of a toll increase from $5 to $30 was fairly common. Some advocates wondered whether the state would have to tap taxpayers, New York State Thruway drivers or even the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which oversees subways, buses and commuter rail in the region, to help pay for the project.

Charles Komanoff, a policy analyst and transportation economist, published a report arguing that a significant toll increase could cause what he termed a “death spiral,” in which, as he explained it over the telephone, “An increase in the toll causes an attrition in trips, which means the toll has to rise, which means even fewer trips and on and on.” Worst-case scenarios were fast becoming likely predictions.

In early August, the Cuomo administration started to address the public’s toll concerns, announcing that the cash charge on the new Tappan Zee Bridge would be in the $14 range, while E-ZPass users would pay $13.30 per trip, and regular commuters would pay $8.40. They explained that, even without a new bridge, the state would have to spend $3 to $4 billion on maintenance to keep the old bridge in good condition and that would prompt similar toll increases, with only a fraction of the benefits.

The following day, Cuomo told reporters that the numbers confirmed the correctness of his administration’s push to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge, and justified his decision to keep bus rapid transit out of the project.

“Amtrak’s $151 billion plan for high-speed rail in the Northeast, for example, is more expensive than a magnetic levitating train that Japan wants to build connecting Tokyo and Osaka by way of tunneling through the Japanese Alps.”

But even that moment of confidence and clarity was soon muddied. Barely a week after the toll announcement, the governor sent a letter to the Thruway Authority saying, “I believe the projected 2017 toll schedule based on the Federal Highway Administration’s estimate of up to $5.2 billion for the new bridge is too high. Over the next five years, we must find alternatives, revenue generators and cost reductions that reduce the potential toll increases.”

What specifically that means for the project is not clear, but it’s a sentiment shared around the nation, where major infrastructure projects frequently cost several times the amount of similar, or even more complicated, projects in other countries. Amtrak’s $151 billion plan for high-speed rail in the Northeast, for example, is more expensive than a magnetic levitating train that Japan wants to build connecting Tokyo and Osaka by way of tunneling through the Japanese Alps and under some of that nation’s most populous cities.

“Given how expensive these projects are,” said the Brookings Institution’s Puentes, “we should be thinking about how to deliver them cheaper and with better quality to get the best bang out of our investment.”

Endgame

In early August, amidst whispers of foul play, some wound licking and threats from the local county executives that they’d use their seats on a regional planning council to block the project’s federal approval, the Cuomo administration started an aggressive public relations campaign to promote its vision for the bridge. They scheduled more than 50 town hall meetings and business breakfasts, hired a well-known local news anchor to lead discussions, and started emphasizing that the new Tappan Zee would be “transit-ready” and “transit-capable” from the day it opens.

Nyack Mayor Jen White, whose town serves as the western terminus for the bridge, told me, “I feel like the state has heard us, and they’re trying to make it a better process.”

She smirked when I asked her if it was too little, too late. “For us, there’s no clear sense that one more lane is going to make traffic better, and we know the toll is going to get higher,” she told me. “That said, we’re thrilled to have a governor who’s trying so hard to get things done, and I understand the importance of regional mobility and jobs.”

Nyack Mayor Jen White maintains hope that the state will make good on its commitment to bettering regional transit, even if the process may unfold differently than expected.

Fixell, White’s counterpart across the river, agreed. “The governor has been listening, and people are a little more optimistic,” he said. “We still want more details: A real plan for transit once the bridge is complete, an idea of what it will look like, real guarantees about noise and construction.” The state is currently reviewing the three design/build bids it received, so any concrete details remain a few months away, though the governor’s office has committed to a rush-hour express bus lane on the bridge and the formation of a study group to examine transit connections and report back in a year. They have also announced that a panel of celebrated aesthetes, including artist Jeff Koons and architect Richard Meier, would weigh in on the bridge’s final design.

For George Sherman, however, the recent public relations campaign was the last straw. In a letter to Brian Coneybeare, the news anchor that the Cuomo administration brought on to lead public meetings, he wrote, “Well after almost 13 years of attending meetings, I decided not to attend any more. I made this decision after the meeting last Thursday at RCC [Rockland Community College]. Between the lengthy explanation of the construction process and the measures that were being taken to mitigate the impact on this area and speeches by local political leaders, there was virtually no time for local residents to be heard.”

Downsized Ambition

If the original Tappan Zee Bridge was built in the Moses era of mega projects, where opening up the suburbs and speeding cars was the end goal, and the plan to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge began in an epoch where smart growth, sustainable transportation and community input were all the rage, then this latest chapter in the project’s history marks another moment entirely. Cuomo’s strategy of simplification and cost-cutting is a crisp reflection of a time in which infrastructure investment is guided by the heavy hand of make-work spending and fiscal austerity.

That’s not to say that massive public projects were once taken entirely for their own benefit, with a kind of infrastructure-for-infrastructure’s sake attitude — the bridge’s first go-round is testament to that — or that there was ever a time when community input entirely guided a project. But in recent years, and very evidently with Cuomo’s Tappan Zee Bridge, the size of the job creation and cost-cutting circles that make up any public work’s Venn diagram have started to expand, while its companions — community-input and project goals — have shrunk or stayed the same. A variation of the same ethos, one that prized cost-cutting above all else, led Chris Christie to kill the ARC tunnel, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to end plans for that state’s high-speed rail system, and Atlanta voters to reject a $7.2 billion transportation plan that would have helped the city fund mass transit projects, not to mention highway construction and renovation.

What will soon rise just 25 miles north of New York City, in George Sherman’s backyard, between the town halls of Mayor White and Mayor Fixell, is a monument to that mentality. It will be an ode to austerity, with a progressive twist: A bridge that once needed transit, but is built without it; one that the state has said will cost $5.2 billion, but can’t cost that much; a project that was once about searching for long-term congestion relief, but has settled on jobs, a rush-hour bus lane and more room for cars; a multi-year undertaking that’s built for the next century, but might be, in the words of Vanterpool, “obsolete on day one.”

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.