New Tappan Zee Bridge: Schumer wants to know how high tolls may rise

An artist's rendition of the design for the An artist's rendition of the design for the new Tappan Zee Bridge that was selected by a panel of experts as the best value among the three proposals submitted. The winning design must be approved by the State Thruway Authority. (Dec. 5, 2012) Photo Credit: NYnewbridge.com

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New York Sen. Charles Schumer says he's waiting for the Cuomo administration to let him know how high tolls must rise to cover the cost of replacing the Tappan Zee Bridge before he signs off on a federal loan needed to finance a new span.

During an unrelated stop in Irvington on Tuesday, Schumer said he has talked to federal Transportation Department Secretary Ray LaHood in recent days about the state's request for a nearly $2 billion low-interest loan to build a new bridge, which will cost an estimated $3.9 billion to build.

"We're doing everything we can to see that [loan]," Schumer told reporters. "I've talked to Ray LaHood, and he's working on a plan for money for the Tappan Zee."

But Schumer, a Democrat, cautioned that, so far, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's administration hasn't revealed how high tolls will rise above the current $5 ($4.75 with E-ZPass) to pay back the cost of building a dual-span bridge across the Hudson River to link Rockland and Westchester counties.

"There are discussions going on between Ray LaHood and the governor," Schumer said. "The state hasn't given us specific plans as to what they think the tolls will rise. I don't want to support a plan that will be inadequate and then have the tolls go to $15 or $16. I'm not saying that they will go to that, but I want to make sure of that."

Last summer, Cuomo said a potential $14 toll was too high, even though the figure was first floated at a community meeting by one of his top aides.

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"We want to make sure tolls don't rise, and we've told the governor that," Schumer said.

The state is seeking a federal loan through the U.S. DOT's Transportation Infrastructure and Innovation Act program for 49 percent of the cost of the project, the maximum amount the federal government can cover.

The rest of the money will be raised by issuing bonds through the State Thruway Authority. And most of it will be paid back from extra revenue from raised tolls.

Economic analysts say the larger the federal loan, the lower tolls will be because the bonds must be repaid at a higher interest rate than a TIFIA loan, which is at 3.1 percent for a 35-year term.

"Gov. Cuomo has said on a number of occasions that it's his priority to keep tolls on the new bridge as low as possible," said Thruway Authority spokesman Dan Weiller.

In the past, state officials have said the toll issue would have to wait until a financing deal was in place. They are in the midst of putting together a task force that would offer its recommendations on tolls to the governor.

Transportation economist Charles Komanoff estimated that at the current $3.9 billion price tag, tolls would be hiked to around $11 on a new bridge.

Schumer said any loan deal would not be complicated by LaHood's announcement last month that he was resigning.

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"As a senior member of the Senate, I get to meet all the proposed cabinet officials," Schumer said. "I will be meeting with whomever the nominee is and will make it clear to them that I have certain expectations before I offer my support."

LaHood, a Republican, said he will step down once the Senate chooses his successor.

He told Newsday in November, during a post-superstorm Sandy stop in New York City with Cuomo at his side, that the state was a good candidate for a loan.

"Before this [storm] happened, the governor and I talked a lot about the Tappan Zee," LaHood said. "It was his [Cuomo's] top priority before this mess occurred. And so if it's his top priority, it becomes our top priority."

The state is competing with 27 other projects from across the nation for a piece of the $17 billion pool of money available through TIFIA, which was designed to aid states and cities looking to repair their aging bridges and tunnels.

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The state is not alone as it awaits word on whether it has secured funding. Since the TIFIA program was expanded in July 2012, just four projects have received loans, according to federal officials.

The delay has caused New York to adjust its timetable for when construction would begin on the five-year Tappan Zee project. Last year, officials said construction would begin in December 2012 and then amended that to early this year. Lately, the administration has only said "this year" when asked when construction would start.

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