The state's plans for a $5.2 billion replacement for the Tappan Zee Bridge that will bring 45,000 jobs to the Hudson Valley region drew a rousing reception from hard hats who packed a town hall meeting in Tarrytown Thursday night but left residents wondering whether their concerns about noise and traffic would be bulldozed before the first hole is dug.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo's aide, Larry Schwartz, drew the loudest applause of the evening as he promised that with or without a $2 billion loan from the federal government, the project will go forward.
State officials also revealed for the first time that a dedicated bus lane will be part of the project.
"This is one of the most painful bridges to drive over," Schwartz told the crowd of some 500 who turned out for the town hall sponsored by News12 and Newsday.com.
"It is old. It is congested. It is unsafe," Schwartz said. "We need to build a new bridge for the people of the Hudson Valley and New York State."
Construction workers, many of them still wearing the hard hats and work boots they wore to their jobs, erupted in applause.
But the ovations couldn't drown out residents like Wendy Brown, who lives in in the Salisbury Point section of South Nyack and fears the bridge project will overwhelm her neighborhood.
She and others who quizzed state and county officials about the project urged caution before destroying the quality of life in their suburban towns.
"I'm unemployed," Brown said. "I want a job. We're not against the bridge. But we need answers."
Later, looking out at the construction workers who outnumbered everyone else in the room, the unemployed health care executive mused, "If they get all those jobs, I want one."
But before the bridge can be built, Cuomo will have to clear a number of hurdles besides the financing and opposition from residents of neighboring towns.
For example, environmental groups want to know whether dredging will stir up metal toxins and herbicides that will destroy the aquatic environment under the bridge. The Cuomo Administration is working closely with environmental groups to address their concerns before the project moves ahead.
At the town hall, Schwartz noted that the bridge's construction will allow for the addition of mass transit in the future. But he said adding rapid transit or a commuter rail now could double or triple the cost of the project.
If residents want mass transit, he said, "they're going to have to pay for it."
"Every year of delay will add $250 million to the bridge," Schwartz said. "We shouldn't hold the bridge hostage any more."
The hard hats cheered.
"Build the bridge! Build it!" the workers shouted.
Cuomo has already gotten 14 major trade unions to sign onto the project, ensuring that the project won’t be marred by labor lockouts that could cost upwards of $1 million per day.
It's still unclear how much tolls on the bridge would increase to pay for the project. "The tolls will be competitive, if not less than, the bridges in the area once the new bridge is built," Schwartz said.
Traffic on the 1,212-foot span has swelled to 138,000 per day -- 38,000 more than its anticipated capacity when the bridge opened for traffic in 1955. For commuters, the morning and afternoon rush hours have become a predictable bumper-to-bumper crawl.
And, the governor's aides say that more than doubling the number of lanes on the new bridge to 15 will not only improve traffic flow but will address safety issues that have dogged the bridge for decades. Currently, there are no shoulder or breakdown lanes on the bridge.
"If the federal loan doesn't come through, (Cuomo's) going to move ahead and build the Tappan Zee Bridge," Schwartz said to more cheers.
New York State Thruway Executive Director Tom Madison said he remains hopeful that the $2 billion federal loan will come through. "It has a very good chance of being successful," Madison said.
Afterward, Schwartz promised that the governor would listen to resident concerns.
"The governor is going to make sure that we respect the quality of life concerns of the people who live near the bridge," Schwartz said. "He's going to make sure we have a dialogue with the local community. ... The governor has said we have talked about this way too long. We need to build a safe bridge."