The Lower Hudson Valley's three Republican county executives who threw their support behind the proposed Tappan Zee Bridge project will spearhead a special mass transit task force.
The moves, announced Thursday, were applauded by transportation advocates, despite still unanswered questions about tolls and financing.
The announcement ensures that the $5.4 billion bridge project will include a dedicated lane to speed express bus commuters from a pickup location on the Rockland County side of the bridge at the Palisades Mall to Westchester points in White Plains and possibly Tarrytown, a service that Rockland residents support.
The joint news conference by the executives -- Westchester's Rob Astorino, Rockland's C. Scott Vanderhoef and Putnam's MaryEllen Odell -- brought assurances of their promise to vote in favor of the project during the upcoming mid-September meeting of the nine-member New York Metropolitan Transportation Council. All three had been reticent to back the project until Thursday's announcement, but with their support, it is assured the unanimous council vote it needs to qualify for federal loans needed to get the bridge built.
"This certainly positions this bridge for the future while meeting today's needs as well," said Astorino as the three stood in Sleepy Hollow's Kingsland Park with the bridge as a backdrop.
The new Regional Transit Task Force will study costs and options, including bus rapid transit and commuter rail and report its findings within a year. Additional appointees to the task force and the selection process have not yet been decided, Astorino said.
Mass transit advocate Veronica Vanterpool applauded the creation of the task force.
"A one-year time frame is important because the bridge is expected to be completed in 2017," said Vanterpool, associate director at Tri-State Transportation Campaign.
Added Jeff Zupan, senior fellow for transportation at Regional Plan Association: "The framework is great. It's exactly what needs to happen."
While the county executives said Cuomo has finally supplied many of the answers they need to commit to backing the replacement bridge project, there are still major concerns. "In the final analysis, the cost will be the big issue," said Vanderhoef, adding that the range could be "$2.5 billion to $6 billion, who knows." Tolls at the bridge and throughout the state Thruway will be used to help cover the construction cost.
"The issue of tolls throughout the entire Thruway system bears watching," said Vanderhoef.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration has been issuing a steady stream of news releases trumpeting support for the project. The list of supporters includes about 80 current and former politicians, including Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano, White Plains Mayor Tom Roach, former Gov. George Pataki and Reps. Nita Lowey and Nan Hayworth.
Transportation expert Charles Komanoff said he remains concerned about toll hikes and the bridge project's long-term financial impact should Cuomo schedule loan repayments on the bridge to be low initially, with larger payments later, when he and the host of office holders who are backing the project are long out of office.
"I worry that our elected officials will find a way to backload the cost so that they are pushed further into the future for future generations," Komanoff said.