Gov. Andrew Cuomo's high-powered campaign to win support for a new Tappan Zee bridge took a surprisingly populist turn Friday when he announced that even he thinks tripling the toll on the bridge to $14 is a bad idea.
In an open letter to the state Thruway Authority -- sent out to the media as a news release -- the governor praised the agency for its "good steps" in shepherding the massive $5.2 billion construction project toward public acceptance but admonished it "to do even better" by reducing the cost of crossing the bridge.
Cuomo suggested that the Thruway Authority and the governor's office could cooperate in putting together a panel of experts tasked with finding ways to hold down the tolls on the new bridge.
He discussed his letter in a radio interview Friday.
"They have a projection of what the tolls could be ... what I said is I want to put together a task force," Cuomo said on public radio's "Capitol Pressroom with Susan Arbetter."
The letter also called for expanding the panel that will select the design for the new bridge from "the usual technical and structural experts" to possibly include architects, river town historians, international designers, local officials and "regular citizens."
Cuomo's letter follows a week of outcry against the state's Aug. 2 sticker shock announcement that the current $5 charge to cross the bridge must be raised to $14 to pay for construction.
The governor's missive did not mention what sort of toll increase might be acceptable, but did specifically recommend discounts for residents of the Rockland-Westchester area, alternate revenue sources and cost-cutting measures that would help hold down tolls.
Greenburgh Town Supervisor Paul Feiner, an outspoken critic of the bridge project, said the release of the letter convinced him to cancel a protest rally that he had organized for Aug. 15. Feiner said he was impressed that on Friday morning Larry Schwartz, secretary to the governor, called with an invitation to dialogue.
"I think there was such outrage in the community over the tolls that they realized that people were really feeling bad about the Tappan Zee Bridge project," Feiner said. He added, "I feel good that our voices were heard. I feel the governor is really trying to listen."
Key to Cuomo's drive for public support are the three Hudson Valley county executives who are voting members of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, a body that must approve the bridge plan if the project is to be eligible for federal loans.
The three county executives -- MaryEllen Odell of Putnam, C. Scott Vanderhoef of Rockland and Rob Astorino of Westchester -- engineered a delay in the council's consideration of the bridge project in early July. The council is now scheduled to consider the project in September. The three have discussed reservations relating both to mass transit on the bridge and the cost of the project.
The council has nine voting members.
Ron Levine, a spokesman for Vanderhoef, said Friday "we're pleased that the governor is acknowledging the importance of discounts for Rockland and Westchester."
Astorino's office applauded the governor, as well.
"Any effort to reduce the possible toll hike would be welcome," spokeswoman Donna Greene said.
But mass transit advocate Veronica Vanterpool said Cuomo's letter still leaves questions for her constituents.
"If the governor is going to lower the tolls, what funds will make up the difference?" asked Vanterpool, associate director for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. "Is the funding for the existing transit systems, roads and bridges at risk?"