The federal panel that presides over a $17 billion pool of cash meant for states and cities eager to repair aging bridges and highways did not take up New York's bid for a $1.5 billion loan to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge at its monthly meeting Tuesday, officials say.
It could be several more weeks or months before the state finds out whether the U.S. Department of Transportation's Credit Council gives approval to a preliminary agreement for a low-interest loan to kick-start financing of the $3.9 billion Tappan Zee project, federal officials said.
After the review, the council will send its recommendation to the Transportation Department secretary.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who indicated recently he's retiring once a successor is chosen, expressed support for the Tappan Zee project Friday.
"It will create construction jobs and spur economic growth for generations to come," LaHood said. "We will continue to work closely with New York State as the TIFIA [Transportation Infrastructure Financing and Innovation Act] application process moves forward for this critical transportation project."
The agreement reached Friday, first reported by Newsday.com, is an official invitation to the state to submit its application for a loan through TIFIA.
An independent financial adviser will be hired to determine the state's creditworthiness before negotiations begin on the final terms of the loan, a federal Transportation Department official said.
It's unclear how long the process will take.
"The time necessary for review depends on a number of factors, so we can't speculate on the timeline for a specific project," said the official, who declined to be identified but agreed to discuss the process.
If the loan for the new Tappan Zee Bridge is approved as now anticipated, it would be the largest TIFIA loan that the U.S. Department of Transportation has handed out, the official said.
Should the state secure the loan, it will have to raise an additional $2.4 billion to cover the remainder of the cost of the bridge. State officials said they intend to raise the balance by issuing bonds through the State Thruway Authority.
However, state officials also said Friday that they are still trying to raise more money through other state and federal revenue sources, although none is expected to rival the size of the $1.5 billion TIFIA loan.
Whatever the state borrows will have to be paid back by with toll revenues. Repayment likely will require raising the current $5 toll on the Westchester-to-Rockland span substantially.
State officials said that because the bridge cost came in much lower than the original estimate of $5 billion or more, tolls will be lower than early projections.
Last summer, a top state aide said tolls on the bridge could rise as high as $14, a figure that would put the Tappan Zee Bridge on par with other Hudson River crossings in New York City, such as the George Washington Bridge. That was offered before the cost of the bridge was nailed down at about $3.9 billion and before Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said he would not support a $14 toll.
So far, state officials have refused to say how high tolls will need to be raised on the bridge.
The state has been pushing for a federal loan to cover 49 percent of the project, or about $2 billion, the maximum percentage allowed under current TIFIA rules. The approval of a smaller loan of $1.5 billion -- and having to plug the $500 million hole -- could have a significant impact on tolls on the new bridge, transportation economists said.
That's because the TIFIA loan will come with an interest rate that currently sits around 3 percent. Bonds will have to be paid back at a higher interest rate, increasing the state's costs.
Some 29 projects from across the nation are vying for a portion of the $17 billion made available through the TIFIA program last year. Among them are highway projects in Texas, a bridge in Alaska and a Metro station in the Washington suburbs.