With the old Tappan Zee Bridge looming in the distance, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a letter Monday requesting federal funding to kick-start his new bridge project.
The governor signed the letter addressed to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood outside The View catering hall in Piermont -- flanked by local officials, including the county executives for Rockland, Westchester and Putnam.
The letter seeks funding from the $1.7 billion pool available under the Transportation Infrastructure and Innovation Act.
Earlier in the day, the executives -- Rob Astorino of Westchester, MaryEllen Odell of Putnam and C. Scott Vanderhoef of Rockland -- joined the other six members of the New York Transportation Council in unanimously approving Cuomo's Tappan Zee proposal. That vote immediately qualifies the project for federal loans -- considered a crucial step toward getting a slice of federal funding for the $5.2 billion project.
"The next step is to apply for a federal loan to make sure we can build the bridge and keep the tolls affordable," Cuomo said at the news conference. "That's the next obstacle to overcome, and we can and we will."
The Thruway Authority has estimated the cash toll cost for a new bridge at $14.
"Even five years down the road, my feeling is $14 is too high," Cuomo said.
Howard Glaser, director of state operations, called the expected unanimous vote "an important step forward."
"There's been 10 years of study, hundreds of public meetings, and finally we'll begin to move forward," Glaser said. "The bridge is outdated. It's unsafe. Residents of Westchester and Rockland and Putnam deserve better, and it's an important economic lifeline for all of New York State."
The environmental group Riverkeeper and the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a mass transit advocacy group, had questioned the hastily scheduled transportation council meeting -- which was called three days ago -- while financial plans for the project still have not been released by the state. Both groups asked the council to postpone Monday's vote until September, when more financial details would be available to the public.
Phillip Musegaas of Riverkeeper said his group has "serious concerns" about the state's handling of the project.
"If the state doesn't have its act together on the financial side, what does that say about the environmental side?" he asked after the transportation council's vote in Manhattan.
In a statement, Riverkeeper also chastised the state and the council for a lack of "transparency and inclusiveness." The group claims the council vote's legitimacy may be in doubt because the state did not supply the council with proper fiscal information.
"These claims are baseless," New York Transportation Council spokeswoman Lisa Deglian said Monday. "All the information required for this vote was available on our website."
The council said it followed all the federal regulations for the vote, including identifying the New York State Thruway Authority as the principal funding source for the new Tappan Zee Bridge project.
"The most important thing we need to do now is convince the federal government to give us the loan for this bridge," Vanderhoef said in Piermont.
That sentiment was shared by the other county executives.
"It's time now for our federal representatives to get to work," Astorino said.
Cuomo did acknowledge that there are a lot of financial unknowns with the bridge project -- including how much the state and the federal government will contribute.
Still, Cuomo rebuffed Riverkeeper's questions over financial disclosures.
"Enough is enough," the governor said. "It's time to act and get something done."
The three bidders for the project have indicated to state officials that they are at or below the $5.2 billion target, said Brian Conybeare, a special adviser to the governor. Bids are expected to be unsealed in the next two weeks, he added.
Now that Cuomo's plan has been approved, state officials say they will immediately begin negotiations for a portion of the $1.7 billion federal loan pot that is available through the federal Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act. In April, the project lost out on the first round of projects slated for TIFIA funds.
Correction: The amount of funding New York is requested from the federal government was incorrect in a prior version of this story.