Cuomo sees Tappan Zee as a model for better government

Workers continue early construction of pilings, from barges,

Workers continue early construction of pilings, from barges, just north of the Tappan Zee Bridge crossing from Westchester to Rockland County, in the background. These pilings will allow boring to ascertain the composition of the riverbed and a pile driving project that will determine the load capacity of seven locations in the future path of the bridge. (March 13, 2012) (Credit: Rory Glaeseman)

For Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the proposed replacement of the Tappan Zee Bridge is about more than a new $5.9 billion span over the Hudson River.

It's about realizing a vision of government.

"One of the hallmarks that I'm trying to bring to government is government needs to work, and government has to work quickly," Cuomo said in Poughkeepsie last week. "It can't be that everything takes years and years to do. That's not going to work, and it wasn't always that way."


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If government working quickly sounds like a contradiction in terms, consider that Cuomo has demolished several key obstacles to progress on the bridge, clearing a path that could put pile drivers to work in the river in a few months. Even six months ago, elected officials in the Hudson Valley would have considered that timetable wildly unrealistic.

Cuomo's point man on the bridge project, Larry Schwartz, states the case for Cuomo bluntly.

"He gets things done," Schwartz said. "For years, for decades, they talked about a property tax cap. They never got it. He got it. For years, they talked about gay marriage. They never got it. He got it. For years, they talked about pension reform, real pension reform. He got it."

Proponents of the new bridge still face hurdles. For starters, it's unclear whether the federal Transportation Department will give Cuomo the $2.9 billion loan he has requested to fund bridge construction. Until recently, the governor's lieutenants spoke of the federal loan as a key element of the administration's plan for financing the project. Last week, that linkage seemed to disappear, when Cuomo asserted that the State of New York will build the bridge with or without federal money.

IN PUBLIC, ALL EARS

In discussing the momentum that has gathered behind the bridge project, officials in the Hudson Valley focus on Cuomo's ability to build consensus through the inclusion of critics in the planning process.

In August, he faced determined opposition from the three Republican county executives in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties -- all members of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, a planning board that is crucial in securing federal funding for local infrastructure. The executives had blocked approval of the Tappan Zee Bridge project, insisting that mass transit options for the new bridge be given further consideration.

Rather than confront the three, Cuomo gave them a voice on state panels that will review bridge designs and study mass transit strategies.

"He opened the door and said, 'Yeah that makes sense,' " said Susan Meyer, spokeswoman for the Rockland County Planning Department.

Cuomo's aides have held no less than 60 community outreach meetings on the bridge project, said Matthew Wing, a spokesman. Many have been led by Schwartz, a practiced politician who came to the Cuomo administration -- Schwartz is now secretary to the governor -- with previous experience in county government both in Westchester and in Nassau County.

Knowledgeable observers say the scale of the outreach effort has been unprecedented.

"I don't recall any other infrastructure project in the industry over the past 35 years where I have witnessed as strong an outreach by state government to local communities, activist groups, business organizations," said Ross Pepe, president of the Construction Industry Council of Westchester and Hudson Valley.

IN PRIVATE, HARD BARGAINING

Although administration officials have been listening hard in public, they have not been above tough bargaining behind the scenes. Some Hudson Valley leaders said they have felt pressure from the governor's office to publicly support the project and downplay criticisms. Not that the leaders find fault with the governor there.

Nyack Mayor Jen White described the dynamic as walking a line between helping the governor with a project of importance to the state on the one hand and serving constituents who will live under the shadow of the bridge on the other.

"You worry about being overly outspoken about certain things, if you are going to make it more difficult for your community rather than less difficult," White said. "It's trying to find a way to have a good relationship with the state while protecting the concerns and worries of the people who are going to be most affected."

Schwartz denied that the governor has leaned on critics.

"Nobody was ever threatened. No one was ever pressured. No one was ever coerced," Schwartz said. "Ninety-nine percent of elected officials on a bipartisan basis came out in favor."

Schwartz conceded that Cuomo himself has made many calls to get people behind the bridge proposal. The governor's office, for example, is still in talks with Riverkeeper, an environmental group that has threatened a lawsuit to stop the bridge project on the basis that it might do irreparable harm to Atlantic sturgeon and other fish.

"The state has been willing to meet with Riverkeeper despite our criticism," said the group's president, Paul Gallay. "Right now, we're concentrated on making the most of the conversation we're having with the governor's office."

Ambitious though it has been, the outreach program hasn't won over everyone. Some South Nyack homeowners are seething over changes in the state's attitude toward them.

"They said, 'We're taking your house.' Then they changed their mind. They want credibility back? No way. No second chance," said Melissa Hall, 55, a Westchester Community College professor who lives on South Broadway in the village.

With a cloud of uncertainty hanging over her neighborhood, Hall feels she has no hope of selling her home or planning effectively for retirement in coming years. She said the state will have to purchase her home in the end and ought to do so sooner, rather than later, in fairness to her.

A spokesman for the Cuomo administration said state officials are still finalizing details on how construction might affect the homeowners.

BIG GOVERNMENT AT A BARGAIN PRICE

Although concerns remain among a small number of homeowners, and the money needed to build the bridge has yet to materialize, Cuomo has effectively pre-empted a host of other problems that might have slowed or even stopped the project.

Last December, the administration pushed through the Legislature a law that protects the state against cost overruns and delays in bridge construction. The Infrastructure Investment Act allows the state to award a contract covering both design and construction to a single consortium and then hold that consortium responsible for delivering the finished bridge at the agreed-upon price.

In May, Cuomo engineered another deal that will affect the cost of the project. He persuaded 14 labor organizations to accept limits on work rules and overtime, announcing that the agreement would save taxpayers more than $450 million if the bridge is built.

The polls seem to support Cuomo's approach. In September, Quinnipiac University found that Cuomo's approval rating stood at 70 percent among New Yorkers. That level of popularity is apt to encourage talk that Cuomo would be a strong candidate for the White House in 2016. Mitchell Moss, director of the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University, said a gleaming new bridge over the Hudson River wouldn't hurt those prospects.

"This is going to be the bridge Andrew Cuomo built," Moss said. "It's going to say there's an important role for government in building transportation infrastructure."

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