Streetsblog Misleads on Tappan Zee Bridge

Last October, the Obama Administration selected 14 infrastructure projects for expedited federal approval. The Tappan Zee bridge replacement project in New York was one of the selected 14 projects. New York State plans to add transit to the corridor. However, the transit will not be in place when the new bridge opens. The state decided to delay the transit portion because of the $5.3 billion construction costs for the transit system.

The state’s decision upset Streetsblog. The organization, which created a special page on its website, has written about the bridge 24 times since January 1st. The organization has used its webpage to lambast groups that are usually its allies including Governor Cuomo and The New York Times. These groups support building a bridge that will not include new transit service from day one.

Streetsblog makes several valid points. Transit is heavily used in the region; there is a market for small increases in transit service. Bus-rapid transit (BRT) is cost-effective transit. BRT has low operating costs and virtually no capital costs as it shares the road with other vehicles.

In a world where the State Department of Transportation did not have a deficit, lobbying for immediate transit service would be appropriate. Unfortunately we do not live in that world.

The Tappan Zee Bridge was built in December 1955 to connect Suffern and Yonkers. Designed to carry 100,000 vehicles, 138,000 traverse the bridge on a typical day. While the infrastructure crisis in the United States is sometimes exaggerated, this bridge is in bad shape–parts of it are literally falling down.

New York State began studying how to replace the bridge in 2002. The Alternative Analysis process in 2006 identified more than 150 suggestions on how to improve conditions in the corridor. Those 150 options were condensed into 16 different scenarios that were analyzed for their environmental impact, ease of construction, cost and mobility improvement. The state had plans but no money.

Enter the Obama Administration. According to The New York Times:

Citing the bridge’s deteriorating condition, the federal Department of Transportation decided it would let the state go forward with the project as long as it streamlined its earlier plan to make a new bridge a centerpiece of a $21 billion, 30-mile transportation corridor. The federal agency said it would help speed up the process for the state to build a $5.2 billion eight-lane bridge, to which mass transit could be added in the future.

John D. Porcari, the deputy transportation secretary, said the expedited review process would allow different government agencies to work concurrently, shaving two and a half years off the building process.

The state will pay for the project by issuing $3 billion in bonds against its toll revenues; the remaining $2.2 billion will be financed with loans from labor pension funds and the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act.

However the available funding is limited. As a result the State will wait to construct transit. While Streetsblog accuses NYDOT of telling lies, the website is not exactly being honest.

The state has gone out of its way to accommodate non-traditional commuters. New York DOT is building a 12-foot wide bicycle and pedestrian path. Residents of most of the other 49 states would be thrilled to have a state DOT that built a pedestrian structure on a highway. It is unlikely that many people will choose non-motorized transit to traverse the three-mile bridge; the fact that the state included such a wide path is noteworthy. Governor Cuomo is also studying the possibility of converting the current bridge into a recreational park. Converting the old bridge to a park is not free as the State will have to maintain the structure.

Streetsblog lists 12 local political leaders who want to restore transit to the bridge. Yet there are at least 17 political leaders in favor of fast-tracking the bridge without immediate transit. And of the 12 who support it—not one of them has offered to commit one dime to the project. It is much easier to be in support of something if you do not have to pay for it.

The bridge is on the national interstate system. The system’s purpose is to transport people and goods between points A and B. The primary goal is and should be about motor-vehicle movement. The new bridge will be paid for by tolls paid by drivers, labor pension funds, and TIFIA loans. Not one dime of the cost comes directly from transit users.

The state already operates BRT service on the corridor. It might not be as extensive as proponents want but the service exists. And operating it is not free. The state spends $2 million dollars to provide the service to 2,000 riders a day.

As Streetsblog notes if the State starts BRT service that uses the general-purpose lanes, buses will get stuck in traffic. And for BRT service to be effective the state would have to add dedicated BRT lanes on I-87 from the Garden State Parkway to the Cross Westchester Parkway. But in another posting, the website complains that constructing the bridge wide enough to allow future BRT service in a dedicated lane is actually a conspiracy against transit. If the bridge needs dedicated BRT lanes for successful BRT service and the state includes them, how is that a conspiracy against transit?

The longer the state waits to construct the new bridge, the more money it needs to spend maintaining the old bridge. Yet if the State has to spend money to maintain the existing bridge, it has fewer funds to spend on a new bridge. It is a catch-22 situation. Both sides are in favor of transit. But one side wants it from day one regardless of how long that delays construction. To say that the State does not want transit is misleading.