Commuters were the real winners in the sweepstakes to build a replacement for the Tappan Zee Bridge as contractors with an eye toward the harsh realities of a struggling economy cut their profit margin to the bone, members of the panel that vetted the proposals told Newsday on Thursday.The panelists said that the three construction consortiums competing for the bridge contract seemed hungry for work, even at a rock-bottom price.

The bid endorsed by the panel was for $3.1 billion, nearly $2 billion less than the price tag Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration had advertised for one of the nation's largest public works projects.

"Boy, the competition has really been stiff because of the economy," said panel member Allen Biehler, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and a former transportation secretary in Pennsylvania. "There just isn't as much building going on. People are very hungry and competitive."

Biehler said the panelists found themselves in "somewhat of a buyers' market."

Prizewinning architect Alison Spear, another panel member, agreed.

"You're going to get better prices in a more competitive market or a down market," said Spear, who heads Ennead Architects in Wappinger Falls.

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The panel's choice will go before the board of the State Thruway Authority for a Dec. 17 vote. The Thruway Authority is in no way bound to accept the panel's recommendation, but it's impossible to ignore it, according to Thruway Executive Director Tom Madison.

"It plays a heavy role in the decision-making process," Madison said Wednesday at the Albany news conference, where the proposals were unveiled.

The identity of the construction consortium that submitted the low bid -- with a complete design and construction specifications -- has not been disclosed. But industry insiders have pointed to Tappan Zee Constructors, a team that is led by Fluor Enterprises of Irving, Texas.

Several contractors bidding on the Tappan Zee project are simultaneously bidding on other major transportation projects. They are competitors one day, partners the next. For instance, Skanska USA Civil Northeast partnered with Kiewit Infrastructure in its bid to replace the Tappan Zee. Meanwhile, the two companies are competing against each other for the contract to build a replacement for the Goethals Bridge, which connects New Jersey to Staten Island.

Panel members declined to discuss the individual designs in detail, or reveal which was their own favorite.

Biehler added that he wasn't surprised that there was a difference of nearly $1 billion among the competing bids. The other two bids were for $3.9 billion and $4 billion, respectively.

"On a very large project, different teams have different capacities," he said. "They will approach the whole issue of design and construction in a different fashion. As a result, you'll get a pretty good variation in cost."

Another expert -- not on the committee -- said he believes dredging was a major issue for the consortiums and one of the chief reasons why the leading consortium was able to undercut the other two.

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Brian Deery, a transportation specialist at the Association of General Contractors of America in Washington, said the leading consortium plans to dredge only 951,000 cubic yards of material from the river. The other two bidders were planning to dredge 1.55 million and 1.8 million cubic yards, respectively, of material, Deery said.

"Dredging is not a cheap operation," Deery said. "Clearly, in the first proposal they obviously figured out a way to build the foundation for the bridge in such a way that they don't have to dredge as much."

The low cost does not mean the new Tappan Zee Bridge will be built on the cheap, said a technical adviser to the review committee. Hugh Lacy is a partner at New York-based Mueser Rutledge Consulting Engineers. He specializes in foundations and underground construction.

"No matter who's selected, you'll get a quality bridge," Lacy said. "Fluor and its partners have extensive experience, particularly on the West Coast, particularly in bridge construction. The other two bidders are also experienced and have built a lot of bridges successfully."

Lacy explained that dredging is necessary in connection with the driving of pilings critical to the construction of the bridge's foundation, but also to make way for barges that will haul parts and equipment to the building site and serve as platforms for construction work.

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"In order to get vessels in to construct the bridge, they need to dredge material in the channel and do it in a manner that minimizes damage to the environment," Lacy said.

The consortiums were asked for innovative approaches to the building of the decks, or roadways, on the bridge, Lacy said. He said panel members asked the consortiums to enhance their plans to ensure the decks would withstand salt corrosion for as long as possible.

The decks on the current Tappan Zee are now being replaced, causing periodic traffic jams, including a huge snarl Tuesday. In the wake of that mess, the state levied a fine of $235,000 against the company responsible, Tutor Perini. Tutor Perini is a partner part in one of the consortiums seeking to build the replacement bridge.

The committee also repeatedly asked contractors about their plans for storing equipment, how they would organize the work schedule and how they would impact South Nyack, Tarrytown and other local communities.

"There were a lot of concerns about not impacting the adjacent communities," Lacy said.

So far, the only elements of the design publicly revealed come from a 23-page PowerPoint presentation the Cuomo administration unveiled Wednesday, with artists' renderings of each design. Details of the competing proposals will not become public for another week or so, officials close to the process said Thursday.

Transportation advocates are eagerly waiting to see how each proposal fits mass transit into its design. The Cuomo administration has promised that the design will include a dedicated rush-hour bus lane on the bridge. Transportation advocates are pushing for so-called bus rapid transit, which would add a network of feeder lanes in local communities.

"This seems to be a great opportunity to talk about bus rapid transit," said Veronica Vanterpool, the executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

The governor has promised to appoint a transportation task force to study such options.

"We've been told something's coming," Vanterpool said. "We just don't know when something's coming."

State officials say the task force will be named soon.