Bloom: Culture war on the Hudson

The Tappan Zee Bridge photographed on the north The Tappan Zee Bridge photographed on the north side during a tour provided by the New York Thruway Authority. (March 13, 2012) Photo Credit: Rory Glaeseman

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The battle over the massive new Hudson Crossing to replace the Tappan Zee bridge has been pictured as a simple fight between those who wish to get things done and idealists who stand in the way of progress. Debates over whether or not to build the bridge at all, the appropriate size and design of the bridge, mass transit now or later, and the relative value of endangered species are really arguments over the same basic thing: What will New York's suburban future look like?

On one side we have older communities in both Rockland and Westchester counties. The political and cultural leadership of these counties support a bridge, but they have also banded together to demand mass transit (commuter rail or bus rapid transit) as part of the design. As representatives of a population living the automobile-based suburban dream, it is a shock to many observers that there should be such unanimous political support for mass transit. It almost seems ridiculous that such trifling concerns should stand in the way of progress.

A closer look, however, reveals that both Westchester and Rockland are mature suburbs that are desperately searching for a financially and environmentally sustainable future.

With aging office parks in Westchester County, and vacancy rates of nearly 20 percent in the famed Platinum Mile, it's hard to imagine how an enhanced crossing will really stem the county's long-term decline. The buzz in the county today is leveraging assets: bolstering populations around existing Metro North stops, creating walkable downtowns like White Plains, expanding affordable housing, and somehow controlling property taxes . . . all while preserving the green space and educational quality the county is famous for.

Rockland County is also nearing the end of its suburban boom years and facing a number of problems related to traffic, water quality and affordable housing. Rockland is in the process of renewing its existing villages and limiting further suburban growth to preserve quality of life. Lacking a high-speed connection to Manhattan, thousands of Rockland residents drive or bus their way across the Hudson River to Tarrytown or other stations for an express train to Grand Central.

In both these counties, many citizens and most politicians realize that what seemed like outlandish planning concepts 20 years ago -- mixed-use office parks or bus rapid transit -- could be useful in building suburban affluence and stability in the future. The quick buck from the subdivision or highway contract are no longer the game in a highly regulated and increasingly complex suburban empire. Even the office park developers talk about mixed use these days. The state's now discarded planning process for bus rapid transit on the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement was popular locally because it was going to help reshape Westchester and Rockland's downtowns and office parks for the 21st century by making them more dense and walkable. The same cannot be said for the exclusive automobile/truck replacement bridge -- it only moves vehicles faster, rather than represent long-term community planning.

Arrayed against this vision are more distant commuters, construction interests, many leading business leaders in Westchester and Rockland counties, and trucking interests, which primarily see Rockland and Westchester as logistical barriers to be solved, in order to get from point A to B or create jobs somewhere. Quaint planning notions such as mixed-use transit oriented development or bus rapid transit mean nothing to Albany road builders. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and his team have made perfunctory nods in the direction of mass transit or preserving the old bridge as a walkway, but they remain devoted to a suburban dream that is alive in many places but seems increasingly out of reach, or threatened, in both Westchester and Rockland counties.

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Cuomo may genuinely believe that the bridge project will create tens of thousands of jobs and help restart the Westchester and Rockland economy by moving traffic more smoothly. But I don't think many people in these counties actually believe that. Large warehouses and trucking operations are not coming back to Westchester because of a new bridge, and it's an open question how many construction workers are likely to live in either county, with our expensive homes and high taxes.

The future of work in Westchester will more likely be in areas such as business services, biotechnology and higher education. And is a bigger bridge the path to more of these businesses? The head of Regeneron, one of the business leaders throwing his support behind the bridge, claims that his employees will commute more easily as a result of the project. But is a $5 billion bridge and a decade worth of delays worth the price of a few hundred, or even a few thousand, jobs? Billions would be far better spent on direct support to biotechnology development or affordable family housing in Westchester, rather than allowing for fast commuting by Regeneron employees to Rockland or farther.

What this culture war does reflect is the ambition of Cuomo himself. A member of the Westchester elite who lives in a wooded and beautiful landscape, he's chosen to align himself with a mainstream, and declining, American vision of the never-ending highway and the long commute to a single-family suburban dream. Can anyone truly believe that five or 10 years from now -- when this bridge is finally done, the construction workers have gone home, drivers are paying $12-15 tolls, gas costs $7 a gallon, and the congestion is no better on Interstate 287 -- that the massive new Tappan Zee Crossing will be seen as anything but a white elephant? There are many ways to transform New York's suburbs for the better. But this is a bridge to nowhere, or at best, to the past.

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Nicholas Dagen Bloom of Tarrytown is an associate professor of social science at New York Institute of Technology and co-editor of the forthcoming "American Tourism: Constructing a National Tradition."

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