State issues final Tappan Zee impact statement
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See-through noise barriers to allow for sweeping shoreline views of the Hudson River. Mufflers to quiet pile drivers pounding deep into the riverbed. And massive hunks of steel delivered by river, not road.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration on Wednesday unveiled its long-awaited plan to address the expected impact that five years of construction on a $5.2 billion replacement for the Tappan Zee Bridge would have on Rockland County and Westchester County communities.
"Building this new bridge is one of our state's largest infrastructure projects and, as we move forward, we are making every effort to limit negative impacts on residents and the environment," Cuomo said. "The final environmental impact statement is our comprehensive plan for protecting the local environment and the well-being of nearby communities during the construction process. From requiring extensive environmental protections to providing real-time online monitoring of construction activities, our goal is to have a responsible, effective and open process for building a new, better bridge."
It received a lukewarm reception from environmental groups and transit advocates, who were hoping the administration would incorporate more of their concerns into the final statement.
Most glaring to those groups was the absence of a rail-based mass transit addition to the project or a deeper commitment to bus service.
"At the outset, everybody agreed that mass transit was essential to this project, and now it's been kicked to the side of the road," said Paul Gallay, the president of the environmental group Hudson Riverkeeper. "It's a missed opportunity to listen to the public."
Gallay, an attorney, wouldn't rule out a lawsuit to try to force the state to listen to the group's concerns.
"If that's what it takes to get the state to respect the environmental laws and build a crossing that we'll be proud of, then that's what we'll do," Gallay said.
He was joined by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.
"Gov. Cuomo must firmly commit to the rush-hour bus lane access his administration promised in June and further improvements to east-west transit in Westchester and Rockland counties -- improvements that will get people out of their cars and provide them a viable transit option that will spare them the burden of the bridge's proposed higher tolls," said Ryan Lynch, the associate director of Tri-State Transportation Campaign.
Last month, Cuomo officials said the project would include a dedicated, rush-hour bus lane, but they have not committed to lanes that will handle bus traffic coming off the bridge and into neighboring communities.
Such additions would add significant cost to the project and cause years of delays while neighboring towns weigh whether to let buses course their streets, the administration said.
The bridge, however, will be built sturdily enough to handle mass transit if the political will is ever found to add it.
The final environmental impact statement contains 2,000 pages and details the state's response to 1,100 people who spoke out at public meetings and 3,000 people who sent in letters with their concerns in the past year.
It offers a case-by-case plan for addressing the concerns cited most often by residents who fear their quality of life will be diminished when one of the nation's largest public works projects gets under way: noise, traffic and dust.
And it lays out the state's plan for preserving the aquatic environment underneath the bridge so that fish are not lost.
A state official says the plan goes to such great lengths to protect marine life that one federal official reviewing the proposal quipped, "We've done everything to protect these fish but give them earmuffs."
Among the highlights:
• The state will dredge the river only from August to November to avoid peak fish migration and spawning periods.
• Whenever possible, builders will install pilings in the river bed using a muffled vibration technique instead of much louder pile drivers. Pile driving will be allowed only from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Noisy construction will be stopped midday Saturday and all day on Sunday.
• Noise and air-quality monitors will track construction-related noise and dust in real time. Residents will be able to check noise updates daily on a bridge website, www.newnybridge.com.
• Barges will transport most of the heavy materials used in the construction instead of having trucks rumble over highways near the bridge.
• Construction workers will have a dedicated site to park every day and will be ferried to work by a bus. They will be discouraged from parking in neighboring communities.
• Ten-foot-high temporary noise walls will go up near construction staging areas and other work zones to shield nearby residences from noise.
• Dredged river sediment will be tested to make sure it's safe before it's reintroduced into the river.
• A panel of representatives from Westchester and Rockland counties will be selected to seek public input on the new bridge's color and lighting schemes before the final design is decided.
The new bridge will feature eight lanes for traffic, one dedicated rush-hour bus lane, a bike lane and shoulders and breakdown lanes that the current bridge does not have.
The next 30 days are a holding period, when state officials are forbidden from going ahead with construction until the public reviews the final statement. The Federal Highway Administration must approve the final version.
But the plans are not likely to change significantly unless an argument can be made that the state has completely overlooked an adverse impact, state officials say.
Residents of the Salisbury Point complex in South Nyack viewed the statement as a good first step but say they want more details on how the state will keep noise and construction dust from overwhelming their home life.
"We now feel like we have someone we can call and someone we can work with," said Catherine McCue, the president of the co-op board of directors for Salisbury Point. "I'm waiting for them to make good on their promises. They've answered some questions, but there are many more that haven't been answered."
Salisbury Point neighbor Wendy Brown agreed.
"So far Cuomo has done what he said he was going to do," Brown said. "The proof will be in the pudding down the line."
The state's plan to protect the aquatic environment has already received a thumbs up from the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Of particular concern for environmentalists is the Atlantic sturgeon, a fish that was declared endangered in February, and the short-nosed sturgeon, which received the same distinction in 1967.
State officials say an observer approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service will be on hand to ensure that endangered fish captured by the dredging will be documented and released.
The Hudson River region is home to the country's largest population of short-nosed sturgeon. In June, the National Marine Fisheries Service said the Tappan Zee Bridge project would not threaten the fish's survival.
Environmental groups like Scenic Hudson say the state should take a closer look at the impact that dredging will have not only on endangered species but the entire fish habitat.
"The fact is that there are many more species that will be effected," said Hayley Carlock, an attorney for Scenic Hudson. "This is a huge dredging project, and the footprint is incredibly large. It's going to take a long time to fill in. That can really alter the aquatic environment."
State officials say the new bridge will last 100 years, 25 years more than most spans of its size and nearly double the life expectancy of the existing bridge, which will be demolished after the new bridge is ready for traffic.
Few have questioned whether the traffic-choked Tappan Zee Bridge, which handles some 35,000 vehicles more than capacity every day, needs to be replaced.
For years, commuters have been met with a predictable brake-light crawl over the span, which links Rockland and Westchester counties.
State officials say it has become obsolete and unsafe.
Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino is among those raising questions about the lack of a mass transit component. Astorino has declined to give his full support to the project until his concerns are addressed.
A spokesman said Wednesday that Astorino is reviewing the statement and declined to comment.
In recent weeks, Astorino has had several conversations with the governor about the project. His support is critical because he has a vote on the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council. The state must get the council's backing before it applies for state loans to help finance the project.
Rockland County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef, who also has a vote on the council, has expressed his support for the project.
The administration's goal is to break ground on the project by year's end.
Still undecided is how the administration will finance construction. Among the options are bonds backed by the New York State Thruway Authority.
The state also is hoping that the Obama administration comes through with a $2 billion transportation loan.
In June, Cuomo signed a labor agreement with 14 major trade unions who will do much of the work. The project will generate some 45,000 jobs in the region for union workers, Cuomo says.