Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday named a heavy-hitting panel of renowned artists, architects and financiers to choose the construction team that will build a replacement for the Tappan Zee Bridge as he presses ahead with a $5.4 billion plan he predicts will put the lie to Albany dysfunction.
The list of luminaries, many with experience in projects across the globe, highlighted the governor's willingness to throw his political heft behind a project that has the potential to shape his legacy.
"Yes, it's a bridge but it's a symbol of what we're trying to do to get the government running, to get the government as an agent of change, to get the government competent and functioning and to get big things done in the state of New York," Cuomo said Wednesday.
"It will be a big sign of progress, a big act of progress for the state."
Koons, whose iconic works include an inflatable rabbit that appeared in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, said he was honored to be selected. "It's a wonderful opportunity for our generation to contribute to a project that will not only enhance everyday life but help define a sense of place for New York," he said.
Not everyone shared Koons' enthusiasm.
The head of the environmental advocacy group, Riverkeeper, said the blue-ribbon panel's selection did little to answer questions swirling about the need for rail or bus lines on the bridge as well as the impact on the environment.
"Gov. Cuomo's newly announced team of design and aesthetic experts is impressive," said Phillip Musegaas, Riverkeeper's director. "But the future success of this project depends on what the state brings to the table to make this a truly sustainable, affordable river crossing that meets our transportation needs without causing irreparable damage to the Hudson River. Unfortunately, this latest effort does nothing to address the critical shortcomings of the Governor's initiative."
Cuomo said the panel will include dozens of technical advisers with a wealth of experience in transportation and environmental issues as well as community leaders with an eye toward the concerns of residents in the lower Hudson Valley region.
On the panel are the planning commissioners for Rockland and Westchester counties -- Thomas Vanderbeek and Edward Burroughs.
Both men were hand-picked by the county executives Scott Vanderhoef of Rockland and Rob Astorino of Westchester, who lent their support for the project after receiving assurances that the mass transit issue would be studied.
Also on the panel is Thomas Wermuth, an expert on the social and economic history of the Hudson Valley and the author of "Rip Van Winkle's Neighbors: The Transformation of Rural Society in the Hudson River Valley."
Cuomo did not tip his hand and indicate the sort of bridge he would like to see replace the aging Tappan Zee. "We'll know it when we see it," he said.
But, he said, he wants a bridge that will fit with the Hudson River as a backdrop.
"This is in a magnificent location on the globe literally," Cuomo said. "This is one of the really beautiful places on this planet. This bridge is going to be there for a long, long time, 100 years, 150 years and that it enhances the region from a design point of view is also a very important perspective."The committee has three options when it concludes its review of the three bidders next month. It can select one of the three firms, authorize the state to negotiate with one or more of the bidders or request a best and final offer from all three teams.
Aside from evaluating the bridge's design, the panel will consider the impact that each bid will have on tolls as well as the bidder's ability to meet environmental requirements.
The panel's selection will be forwarded to the board of directors of the New York State Thruway Authority for a vote.
The three construction consortiums selected by the state in July include: Kiewit-Skanska-Weeks Joint Venture (Kiewit Infrastructure Co., Skanska USA Civil Northeast Inc. and Weeks Marine Inc.), Tappan Zee Bridge Partners (Bechtel Infrastructure Corp. and Tutor Perini Corp.) and Tappan Zee Constructors (Fluor Enterprises Inc., American Bridge Co., Granite Construction Northeast Inc. and Traylor Bros. Inc.)
Billed as one of the nation's largest capital works projects, the project is expected to generate about 45,000 jobs during the five-year construction phase slated to begin next year. Fourteen major trade unions already have signed on, promising not to strike in return for desperately needed jobs for their workers.
The bridge opened to traffic in 1955 to handle 100,000 cars per day. Today, some 138,000 vehicles travel the span, causing bumper-to-bumper crawls during rush-hour commutes.
State officials contend that the bridge has surpassed its life span and become a safety hazard because there are no breakdown lanes for motorists, among other problems.
The announcement Wednesday comes as state officials await word on whether the U.S. Department of Transportation will turn over as much as $2.9 billion in loans to help kick-start the project.
Two weeks ago, the Cuomo Administration asked for a portion of $17 billion in federal funds freed up in July through the Transportation Infrastructure and Innovation Act (TIFIA), which provides low-interest federal loans to states and cities looking to repair or replace aging bridges and tunnels.
TIFIA loans can only support 49 percent of the cost of the project, which means the state will have to issue state Thruway Authority bonds backed by bridge tolls to pay off the rest -- estimated at between $2.3 billion and $2.7 billion.
While state officials have pegged the total cost of the project at $5.4 million, the actual cost won't be known until the panel selects a winner.
The project will be paid for largely through increasing tolls on the span, currently $5 one way and $4.75 with E-ZPass. This summer, state officials said tolls would increase to $14 one way after the span is completed. As criticism mounted, however, Cuomo backed off, dismissing the proposed increase as too high.
Aside from financing concerns, the state could still face a legal challenge from environmental groups displeased that the plan doesn't include a viable mass transit option from the start, which Cuomo said could double the cost.
The state has only committed to adding a dedicated rush-hour bus lane to the span, but that lane would not be supported by bus lanes in towns neighboring the bridge.
The bridge will be built sturdily enough so that mass transit can be added to the span in the future, Cuomo said. The selection panel will evaluate each bid to determine whether the consortium has considered the addition of bus lanes and rail lines.