A New Tappan Zee Bridge

What will replace Westchester’s iconic landmark?

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While Westchester’s population is expected to grow by a stately 3 percent from 2010 to 2020, Orange and Rockland’s are projected to jump 11 percent and 6 percent, respectively, adding more than 60,000 potential new commuters between them. Looking at the 2035 projections the project uses, Westchester’s workforce is expected to grow by more than 100,000 jobs, but our population will increase by only half that number. That means thousands and thousands of additional people trying to get to work in Westchester in the morning—many of them across the Tappan Zee.

But wait a minute. You may notice that the proposed bridge has only one more lane for cars and trucks, which doesn’t sound like much of an improvement. Going from seven to eight lanes might do away with the always-entertaining “zipper machines” that move the center barrier twice each day, but that extra lane is not going to do much to speed up the snail parade that can stretch from the toll booths back to the Palisades Parkway.

That’s where mass transit comes into play in the state’s master plan. The BRT system would stretch 30 miles from Suffern to Port Chester, run on (ideally) a dedicated roadway of some sort (including lanes on the bridge), and stop at eight to 10 stations that would connect to existing transit hubs like the White Plains Transportation Center and the Port Chester-New Haven line station. The BRT that’s proposed for Westchester is similar to what has been successful in Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Boston, and some places in California, according to Anderson. It also can carry many more riders than train service can along such routes. Commuters to Manhattan, the other market served, will be carried over the bridge by a new rail link to Metro-North’s Hudson line in Tarrytown.

Together, the two mass-transit features are expected to not only handle all the projected growth in traffic on the bridge, but persuade many commuters who now drive to make the ecologically-sound switch to bus or train. One big inducement would be time savings. If the DOT estimates are correct, door-to-door travel time from Suffern to White Plains will drop from 96 minutes to 44 minutes.

Not everyone is buying all these projections and rosy estimates. “We have a lot of substantive concerns,” says Hudson Riverkeeper President Alex Matthiessen, whose environmental watchdog organization has closely monitored the studies. “The bottom line is, we don’t think the state has yet made a compelling case for a brand new bridge with all the bells and whistles they are proposing.” He adds, “We are generally favorably inclined toward the bus rapid transit system, but we are scratching our heads about how a commuter rail line is going to serve the region.”

The whole question may be moot, of course, given the state of the state’s finances—not to mention everybody else’s. The proposed new Tappan Zee Bridge and mass-transit improvements are the largest single capital project in the state, according to Anderson. And no one has the slightest idea how to pay for it.

The bridge itself is expected to cost $6.4 billion. The high-speed bus system will add $2.9 billion. Then throw in another $6.7 billion to build the new commuter rail line. That adds up to the often-quoted $16 billion price tag.

But the DOT’s preliminary financial study says we can expect additional costs of $7 billion (for inflation of original cost estimates, debt service incurred during the construction, and the cost of debt financing itself—fees to Wall Street underwriters, etc.), so the actual total cost is $23 billion. Using all current and expected sources of funding (including bonds backed by bridge tolls at three times the current rate), the project’s promoters can come up with about $4 billion. That’s a little short.

Will we see a new Tappan Zee Bridge in 2020? Ignoring the $23 billion gorilla in the room, the environmental review process is slated for about two years and construction could begin in 2012. First will come the new highway connections on either side of the river, followed by the bridge itself, and, finally, the rail line and BRT system. If all proceeds without delays (okay—not very likely), it would be completed around 2020.
—Dave Donelson



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