Federal Transportation Department Secretary Ray LaHood on Tuesday gave the clearest indication yet that the Obama administration will hand New York a low-interest loan to kick-start funding for a new Tappan Zee Bridge.
LaHood joined Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in downtown Manhattan to announce the reopening of the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel after a 15-day shutdown to cars caused by surging floodwaters in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
LaHood told Newsday that Cuomo's efforts to secure a below-market rate federal transportation loan to replace the Tappan Zee could be in the offing.
"Before this happened the governor and I talked a lot about the Tappan Zee," LaHood told Newsday. "It was his top priority before this mess occurred. And so if it's his top priority, it becomes our top priority."
Asked if an announcement could come soon, LaHood said: "We're working on the paperwork."
Cuomo, standing beside LaHood, smiled at the answer before aides ushered them off to waiting cars.
In a news conference, LaHood praised Cuomo's efforts to get the state up and running after the hurricane and pledged the Obama Administration's continued financial support of the state as well as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority headed by chairman Joseph Lhota.
"We are in the infrastructure building business and we will be strong partners with Governor Cuomo, with Joe Lhota and anybody else here that wants to get things done to rebuild infrastructure in New York and get people moving again," LaHood said. "That's what we do."
The Cuomo administration is seeking a $2.9 billion federal transportation loan from a $17 billion pool freed up this summer through a program that gives states and cities aid to fix their aging bridges, roads and tunnels.
The loan secured through the Transportation Infrastructure and Innovation Act (TIFIA) would fund about half of the Cuomo administration's estimated $5.9 billion cost of the bridge. The rest would come through transportation bonds sold by the New York State Thruway Authority.
But without the TIFIA loan, it would be difficult for the Cuomo administration to sell bonds. And it's unclear what the administration would do if it doesn't secure the loan. Officials have not publicly said what their alternative is if the funding falls through.
The money would be recouped through tolls on the new bridge, the state says.
The Tappan Zee project -- believed to be the nation's largest pending public works project -- is competing with 18 other projects from across the country seeking a portion of the $17 billion in TIFIA money.
Among the biggest requests is one from the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which is seeking a federal loan to finish the second phase of a 23-mile, 11-station extension of the Metrorail system to Dulles Airport. Total cost is estimated at $6 billion.
In addition, other states, including Texas, Virginia and Louisiana, are seeking federal help to repair highways. Altogether, the total costs of all pending projects is $27.5 billion. TIFIA is only allowed to pay a maximum of 49 percent of a project, meaning states and cities could be seeking as much as $13.6 billion out of the federal pool.
Cuomo did not address the Tappan Zee Bridge in his remarks, which centered on efforts to reopen the Carey Tunnel, a key downtown link to Brooklyn.
He recalled standing near the Battery, watching seawater course its way into the tunnel on the night the hurricane hit.
"It was a white-water rapid of water running into the tunnel and it was almost surreal," Cuomo said. "It was just hard to imagine what was happening."
Privately, Cuomo administration officials were concerned that if President Obama lost the election, New York would lose a key ally in the White House and damage its chances of securing key federal funding for the Tappan Zee.
"The president will be here on Thursday with obviously further commitments for Gov. Cuomo, for Joe Lhota and for the entire region," LaHood said.
"The people know that we are with them and we will continue to be with them until the governor tells us we're done with our work. I don't think that day will ever come but when it does we will be grateful for the great leadership of Gov. Cuomo."