NYS Thruway boss warns transit will delay Tappan Zee bridge

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 background. These pilings allowed proposers to conduct demonstrations of 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. The pile-driving demonstration project was the first physical preparatory work for the new Tappan Zee Bridge. (March 13, 2012) Photo Credit: Rory Glaeseman

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The executive director of the New York State Thruway Authority said Monday evening that adding mass transit capacity to a new Tappan Zee Bridge would delay the project for years.

"The state spent more than 10 years and $88 million studying options for building a new bridge, including numerous alternatives for bus and rail systems," Tom Madison said in a statement released to the media. "The bridge will accommodate transit on day one and include eight general traffic lanes as well as additional wider lanes for use as a pedestrian/bike lane, emergency breakdown lanes and a dedicated bus lane."

Madison said that more complex provisions for mass transit would bring "skyrocketing tolls and years more of delay."

His statement came at the tail end of a day of public argument about transit on the bridge.

A transit watchdog group insisted that the state should reconsider a low-cost bus lane for the new bridge -- one that would flow into bus routes in neighboring communities -- but Gov. Andrew Cuomo wasn't budging.

"The public wants transit," said Veronica Vanterpool, the executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Project, a not-for-profit transit advocacy group. "They're tired of being stuck in their cars."

Cuomo took to the airwaves and warned that adding anything more than a rush-hour bus lane on the bridge could double the cost of the $5.2 billion project and quite possibly doom it to failure.

"Putting in a bus system is very, very expensive and it has nothing to do with the bridge," Cuomo said during an appearance on an Albany radio talk show.

Cuomo has suggested that Interstate 287 would have to be rebuilt if a bus rapid transit system is added to the bridge project.

"Everybody says the bridge has to be replaced," Cuomo added. "Whatever bridge is built will be able to accommodate any bus system or rail system in the future."

Larry Schwartz of White Plains, a former deputy Westchester County executive who is the governor's point man on the Tappan Zee plan, announced at a June 28 town hall meeting sponsored by News12 and Newsday that the state would add a dedicated bus lane to plans for a 15-lane bridge but would not plan for interconnecting routes through neighborhoods around the new bridge.

In pushing for more mass transit, the Tri-State Transportation Project is aligned with county executives Rob Astorino of Westchester, C. Scott Vanderhoef of Rockland and MaryEllen Odell of Putnam, all of whom have said they will need to see robust provisions for rail or bus service added to the bridge plans before they can sign on.

Requests for comment from the county executives brought no immediate response Monday evening.

Last week, the executives delayed a key vote of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council scheduled for this Tuesday, allowing them more time to gather details about funding, design and environmental issues surrounding the project.

The council's approval is needed before the state can seek federal financing for the project.

Cuomo has staked his political reputation on successfully completing one of the nation's largest public works projects.

"The question is do you allow the opposition and the controversy to defeat the project, because if controversy always wins, we build nothing," Cuomo said.

Cuomo already has won the support of 14 major trade unions who stand to gain from the project. Union members crowded the town hall meeting to voice support for a project that Schwartz estimates would bring 45,000 jobs to the region.

Vanterpool says the state has not accurately assessed the cost of bus rapid transit on the bridge. One state-sponsored draft report foresaw a need for truck lanes and tunnels and put the final cost of bus rapid transit at $4.5 billion to $5.2 billion.

"We're asking the state to examine what the costs will be," Vanterpool said. "These sort of bus lanes are not as expensive as the state says they are."

She added, "The addition of bus rapid transit -- a mode renowned for its low cost and flexibility -- need not involve such elaborate infrastructure upgrades to the corridor. You don't need to dig a tunnel to paint a bus lane."

Vanterpool believes that if the bus lane on the bridge does not flow into neighborhood routes, bus commuters will be stuck in traffic once they come off the bridge.

Cuomo is telling critics not to lose sight of the need to get a bridge built.

"This is a bridge where it is a no-brainer that the bridge has to be replaced," Cuomo said. "Let's decide and do something because the alternative is to do nothing."

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