Sixteen months after plans to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge were fast-tracked, there's still no word on the issue uppermost in the minds of all those who cross the bridge daily.
How much will tolls rise to pay for the new $3.9 billion bridge?
Will the Tappan Zee's current $5 toll -- $4.75 with E-ZPass -- cede its place as one of the best bargains among the region's Hudson River crossings?
Or will the toll rise to come more into line with the Tappan Zee's neighbor to the south, the George Washington Bridge, whose current $13 toll is expected to climb to $14 in December 2014?
If state officials have the answer, they're not saying.
Instead, Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration has turned to a tool that comes in handy whenever politically unpalatable decisions need to be made -- the task force. Months after it was promised, state officials say they are now in the midst of selecting members of a Tolls/Financing Task Force that will advise Cuomo on bridge tolls.
No timetable for decisions has been announced.
Cuomo has now used the task force approach to defuse several potentially controversial issues relating to the bridge. He appointed a panel of design experts to choose a favored bidder -- it turned out to be Tappan Zee Constructors -- from among three competing construction consortiums competing for the main construction contract. When county executives in the Hudson Valley raised concerns about the lack of a mass transit options in bridge planning, he appointed a mass transit task force.
Tappan Zee Constructors, a consortium led by Fluor Enterprises of Irving, Texas, came in with the lowest bid among three consortiums shortlisted for the project last year. The total cost of the new bridge will likely climb to about $3.9 billon when ancillary and support costs are factored in, state officials say.
The Mass Transit task force, which includes Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, met for the second time Friday, but imposed a media blackout while members discussed whether to open future meetings to the public. Next month's meeting will be open to the public, according to the governor's bridge project spokesman, Brian Conybeare.
Iona College political science professor Jeanne Zaino sees the task force strategy as an effective way to head off critics who might accuse Cuomo of pushing his ideas too aggressively.
"It's a very interesting way of proceeding," Zaino said. "But it does make sense. I think it shows people it's a democratic process. It gives them an opportunity to say we gave people an opportunity to speak."
The tactic could give Cuomo political cover if a steep toll increase proves necessary. Clearly, a big increase might be controversial. When Cuomo lieutenants first floated the idea of a $14 toll last summer, the idea provoked a storm of criticism and Cuomo quickly backed away, in favor of the task force approach.
Zaino, for one, feels that the Cuomo administration is not above political theater, when it comes to the handling of sensitive issues.
"You wonder if that $14 was really a trial balloon, so that now, when it comes in lower, it won't sting so much," Zaino said. "It was a way to gauge what the public reaction would be."
Transportation economist Charles Komanoff says that the $3.9 billion price tag for the new bridge -- far lower than the $5.2 billion estimate the state once projected -- could knock the toll down to around $11.
Much hinges on the size of a low-interest federal loan the state is seeking from a $17 billion pool of money created by the Transportation Infrastructure and Innovation Act, or TIFIA. The state is seeking a loan to cover 49 percent of the project, the largest amount allowed under TIFIA rules. Federal officials have not indicated whether they will go along.
Thruway Authority Executive Director Tom Madison has said he's confident the loan will cover at least 33 percent of the bridge's cost.
Komanoff said that, if the loan is only 33 percent, the toll on the bridge would probably have to be about one dollar more than it would be with a 49 percent loan. That's because the interest rate on the federal loan will be significantly lower than the rate on the bonds the Authority will sell to cover the remainder of the construction cost.
Thruway officials spelled it all out in a letter to federal transportation officials in September.
"Reductions in the level of TIFIA assistance from the 49% level that is requested herein would require the Authority to implement significantly higher, earlier and more frequent toll increases at the Bridge, impacting the regional economy and job-creating benefits of the Project," state officials claimed.
In documents filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation, state officials have said that even a toll increase to the $14 range is unlikely to turn many drivers away, since few have other options. A state analysis estimates that a whopping 300-percent increase in tolls would translate into less than a nine percent dip in traffic on a bridge that now carries 138,000 cars every day.
"The George Washington Bridge to the south is already overcrowded; the four-lane, twin span Newburgh-Beacon Bridge (itself in need of a $100 million deck replacement), is 40 miles to the north; and the two-lane Bear Mountain Bridge, which lies in between, lacks direct connections to the interstate highway system," state officials said in their application letter to TIFIA.
Komanoff differs, saying that a steep increase in the toll could result in a much larger drop in bridge traffic. He said the state's economic analysis should have considered factors beyond other bridge options. Some commuters faced with a hefty toll hike might decide to relocate, carpool or take mass transit, he said.
"There are dozens of different ways people can respond to increases in tolls," Komanoff said.