A projected $14 toll on the new Tappan Zee Bridge -- nearly tripling the current toll -- has mass transit advocates pushing hard for a low-cost transit option that will get commuters out of their cars and into buses and trains.
State officials announced Thursday night that tolls on the new bridge would be increased to keep pace with Hudson River crossings like the George Washington Bridge, now a $12 hit that is expected to jump to $14 in December 2014.
The Tappan Zee hike would include a discount for local commuters, who would pay $8.40, instead of the $3 they pay now. E-ZPass customers would pay $13.30, instead of the current $4.75.
Officials say they are not ruling out incremental toll hikes on the existing bridge to pay for the new one once it comes along.
So far, the Cuomo administration has resisted calls for rail or a more extensive bus option for the new bridge, whose cost has been pegged at $5.2 billion. The administration has agreed to add a dedicated rush-hour bus lane on the bridge, but does not want to delay construction by asking towns on both sides to agree to let buses travel their streets.
"I would not support putting the bus system on both sides," Cuomo said Friday during a stop in Syracuse, as he pressed the case for a new bridge. "I believe in mass transit but I don't think we can afford it right now."
Adding mass transit now would double the cost of the span and stick commuters with a whopping $28 toll, Cuomo warned.
Cuomo said that repairing the current bridge would not save commuters all that much money -- about $7 with a discount and $12 without one in the next five years.
"Fixing the bridge is what we've been doing," Cuomo said. "To build a new bridge is just about the same cost as fixing the bridge because the bridge has such structural deficiencies."
The new bridge will be big enough and strong enough to accommodate rail lines later, if the money to build them becomes available, the administration has said.
But that approach doesn't satisfy bus and rail advocates, who say a hefty toll hike without a transit option will hold commuters hostage in their own cars.
"The tolls are going to be going up 200 percent but there's no comparable transit system," said Ryan Lynch, the associate director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. "Commuters are going to be left without any options."
Lynch pointed to Port Authority of New York and New Jersey figures from December 2011, which showed that ridership on PATH trains rose 3.7 percent -- about 560,000 riders -- after the authority raised tolls on bridges and tunnels in September 2011.
On Sept. 18, 2011, tolls rose from $8 to $12 on the George Washington Bridge, as well as the Holland and Lincoln tunnels.
The authority also noted that nearly 900,000 fewer cars and trucks used the Hudson River crossings between Sept. 19, 2011, and Nov. 22, 2011, compared with the preceding year.
"It strengthens the argument for mass transit and the need for a 21st century bridge," Lynch said.
County executives from the Lower Hudson Valley are waiting to see whether the administration will budge on its position on mass transit before offering their full-throated support for the plan.
The county execs from Putnam, Westchester and Rockland counties each have a vote on the nine-member New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, whose backing is needed before the state can ask for federally backed loans to finance the bridge project.
"I want to vote yes," Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino told News12 Friday. "I am sure ultimately, I will vote yes, but we want to have assurances from the governor and that's what these discussions are about."
Astorino and Putnam County Executive MaryEllen Odell say they have had several conversations with the governor and his aides in recent weeks. A transportation council vote is slated for September.
While Astorino was pleased that the new tolls would come with a steep discount for local commuters, he acknowledged that it will be difficult for many commuters to pay.
Odell said such a toll hike brings greater urgency to the mass transit debate.
"With the George Washington Bridge at $12 you know it was going to fall somewhere in there," said Odell. "The mass transit issue is a question that has to be answered. Everybody is looking at transportation a lot differently now and that's not necessarily a bad thing. It's smart. It shows we can depend less on oil and it's good for the environment."
Odell said that Putnam's park-and-ride lots have been crowded with cars in recent months as more commuters share rides to work.
Political observers took note of Cuomo's timing in announcing a projected toll hike -- an issue that's sure to resonate with residents of the Lower Hudson Valley who use the bridge every day.
"It's interesting that it comes out late on a Thursday night in the middle of summer," said Jeanne Zaino, a political-science professor at Iona College in New Rochelle and the interim dean of the school of arts and sciences. "For people in these counties this is a hefty bill, especially in this economy."
The information on tolls was not included in a voluminous environmental impact statement released to the public Wednesday. Administration officials say they needed time to "clarify" the costs of the project before releasing the toll information.
The traffic-choked Tappan Zee opened to drivers in 1955 and now handles about 138,000 cars per day -- some 38,000 more than it was designed to handle.
Former Westchester County deputy executive Larry Schwartz, Cuomo's point man on the Tappan Zee project, said the troubles with the current bridge go back decades.
"This bridge was built in the wrong place in the river," Schwartz said. "It was built on the cheap."
State officials say a lack of shoulders and breakdown lanes has made the bridge unsafe. They estimate that it would cost $3 billion to $4 billion just to maintain the bridge over the next five years.
The administration hopes to break ground on a new bridge by the end of the year. Cuomo has already signed a labor deal with 14 major trade unions who will do the bulk of the work on the bridge.
He estimates the bridge project will generate 45,000 jobs in the region during the five years of construction.
Also undetermined is the final price tag for the new bridge. While officials have given a rough estimate of $5.2 billion, they say the real cost won't be known until one of three bids on the project is chosen.