Editorial: Tappan Zee progress a good sign for big projects

From left, Larry Schwartz, Brian Conybeare, Gov. Andrew From left, Larry Schwartz, Brian Conybeare, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Director of State Operations Howard Glaser stand before an approved design for the new Tappan Zee Bridge. The State Thruway Authority gave final approval Monday to a plan to build a new Tappan Zee Bridge for $3.1 billion. (Dec. 17, 2012) Photo Credit: Gov. Cuomo's Twitter account

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New York State is again on the road of big thinking, at a time when we need both a new Tappan Zee Bridge and more jobs. But taking on one of the largest infrastructure projects in the country won't be a short ride. There are still many possible detours ahead.

In selecting a builder for the project, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Thruway Authority showed that even the toughest of sells -- a costly and potentially disruptive project over an environmentally sensitive resource -- doesn't have to languish in the murky depths of the Hudson River or get stuck in I-87 traffic.

Cuomo and the Thruway Authority announced a consortium of companies on Monday that includes the builder of the original span. As a bonus, its $3.1-billion bid came in $1 billion lower than the competition and $2 billion below than the governor's estimates; that ought to shave a few bucks off any toll increase in the years to come. That's good for drivers using this critical metropolitan area crossing.

This proposal dredges the least amount of river sediment, a plus for endangered Atlantic sturgeon that traverse the Hudson and use it as a spawning ground.

Erecting this new crossing is historic, as it will test the state's new design-build law, which protects taxpayers from cost overruns. That's particularly poignant when you consider other massive projects like Boston's "Big Dig," a 3.5-mile, $24-billion underground monstrosity that blew its original budget eight-fold. Or the replacement of the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, which took 24 years and, at $7 billion, cost about six times the original estimates.

Announcement of the bridge contract came on the same day that the authority put the brakes on a proposed 45 percent toll hike on trucks. In scrapping the plan, the authority refinanced $900 million in risky debt, reduced its workforce by 6 percent and cut $25 million from its operating budget, among other changes. It shows the authority can control costs.

There are still permits to be issued for the new bridge, and contract reviews to be done by the state comptroller and federal government. But this week's selection paves the way for a groundbreaking in January. And it means that the expected five-year completion plan hasn't been knocked off schedule before construction even begins.

President Barack Obama designated this project as a national priority in 2011. And since taking on the role of bridge-builder-in-chief, Cuomo, and members of his administration, have delivered on their promise of transparency, meeting with just about anybody affected by the new crossing and preventing the new bridge from getting derailed by politics. Cuomo has long described this project as a "metaphor for the dysfunction of government," pointing to $88 million in studies over 11 years, hundreds of meetings and 150 different concepts, with little to show. Now he's touting a new bridge as "a national model for progress."

There's a lot riding on this span -- for residents, workers and the governor -- and the bridge must still be built and paid for. But the currents have shifted in the right direction.

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