Faced with public outrage over the projected tolls for a new Tappan Zee Bridge, state officials made the case Sunday that the final cost to daily commuters would be about a dollar more a day.
At a Tarrytown news conference, three former Westchester County executives -- Alfred Del Bello, Andy O'Rourke and Andy Spano joined current government officials to voice their support for the bridge plan and urged fellow New Yorkers to get behind the project.
"We've all dealt with this issue over the years . . . but the most important thing now is to get a new fully functional bridge in place," said Del Bello, who served as county executive from 1974 to 1982. "The issue of the tolls is five years down the road. Right now, we need to focus solely on the issue of replacing the bridge."
State officials announced Thursday night that tolls on the new Tappan Zee Bridge would be increased to $14 -- nearly tripling the current toll -- to keep pace with Hudson River crossings like the George Washington Bridge, now a $12 toll that is expected to jump to $14 in December 2014.
E-ZPass holders with a Tappan Zee Bridge specific plan would pay a discounted toll of $8.40 on the new bridge but would pay $7.20 for tolls on a refurbished bridge, according to projections by the Cuomo administration. A third option for the bridge with a rapid bus transit system would force the toll up to $28, or $16.80 for local commuters.
At Sunday's news conference, Larry Schwartz, the secretary to the governor, said the broader, more important, discussion about the bridge project was getting bogged down in the public antipathy over higher tolls. He pointed out that the tolls were only projections and that the difference between the new bridge and old bridge options for commuters was about a buck.
"Under any of the options, tolls will have to rise," Schwartz told reporters at the State Police barracks. "While there are three options, right now there is only one choice. The days of delay and indecision and dysfunction are over . . . we need to move forward."
Spano, who served from 1998 to 2010, called the current Tappan Zee Bridge "one of the most unsafest bridges in the United States."
"We need to get this bridge replaced now," he said.
Among those representing Rockland County at the meeting were state Assemb. Ken Zebrowski (D-New City), state Sen. David Carlucci (D-Clarkstown) and Town of Ramapo Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence.
Although former executives have no say in the project, current county executives from the lower Hudson Valley are waiting to see whether the Cuomo administration will budge on its position on mass transit before they back the plan.
So far, the Cuomo administration has resisted calls for rail or a more extensive bus option for the new bridge, whose cost is estimated at $5.2 billion. The administration has agreed to add a dedicated rush-hour bus lane on the bridge but does not want to delay construction by asking towns on both sides to agree to let buses travel on their streets.
"The choice is clear: The tolls commuters will have for a new, better, transit-ready bridge are roughly the same as the tolls they will have to pay (to) repair the old Tappan Zee Bridge, which will still be dangerous, congested and unable to handle any transit," said Cuomo in the statement. "Instead of paying more for the same bridge, it's time to invest in a new, better bridge that will create jobs, reduce congestion and give the region a real transit option."
Still, the suggestion of Tappan Zee Bridge toll hikes seem to aggravate some.
"That's craziness," said taxi dispatcher Kettely Gilbert of Spring Valley about the tolls Sunday afternoon while reading in Memorial Park. "Even the $12 is too much in this kind of economy. Find someone else to pay for it. Don't put it on the back of people. It's not fair."
Jazzmine Corujo, also of Spring Valley, said she usually drives over the bridge on Sunday to see family in Westchester County. She believes the hikes are "ridiculous" and that the state needs "to leave that bridge alone."
County executives from Putnam, Westchester and Rockland counties each have a vote on the nine-member New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, whose backing is needed before the state can ask for federal loans to finance the bridge project.
"I want to vote 'yes,' " Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino told News 12 on Friday. "I am sure ultimately, I will vote 'yes,' but we want to have assurances from the governor, and that's what these discussions are about."
Astorino and Putnam County Executive MaryEllen Odell said they have had several conversations with the governor and his aides in recent weeks. A transportation council vote is slated for September.
Although Astorino was pleased that the new tolls would come with a steep discount for commuters, he acknowledged that it will be difficult for many to pay. Odell has said such a toll hike brings greater urgency to the mass transit debate.
The traffic-choked Tappan Zee Bridge opened to drivers in 1955 and now handles about 138,000 cars per day -- some 38,000 more than it was designed to handle.
State officials say a lack of shoulders and breakdown lanes has made the bridge unsafe. They estimate that it would cost $3 billion to $4 billion just to maintain the bridge during the next five years.
The administration hopes to break ground on a new bridge by the end of the year. Cuomo already has signed a labor deal with 14 major trade unions that will do the bulk of the work on the bridge.
He estimates the bridge project will generate 45,000 jobs in the region during the five years of construction.
With Meghan E. Murphy