New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli is promising close scrutiny of financing for the new Tappan Zee Bridge, oversight likely to highlight uncertainties that have the potential to delay work on the span.
By law, construction can't begin on the new bridge over the Hudson River until DiNapoli approves the $3.1 billion contract to build it.
"Given the sheer magnitude of this contract, you can understand this office is being very diligent and doing a very thorough review," said DiNapoli's communications director, Jennifer Freeman. "It oftentimes can be a very intense process because our folks will really dig in and get their hands dirty."
The comptroller received the contract Jan. 8, about a month after the State Thruway Authority awarded the job to Tappan Zee Constructors, a consortium led by Texas-based Fluor Enterprises. By law, he must approve or reject the deal within 90 days of receiving it. Freeman declined to say when the review would conclude, but DiNapoli was expediting it, she said.
"This office is prioritizing this project," Freeman said. "We understand the magnitude."
It's not clear what financing DiNapoli will review. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has yet to present final plans for funding the construction.
Most tellingly, the governor has yet to propose toll hikes for a new Tappan Zee. Higher tolls will be required to repay the debt incurred during construction, including a low-interest loan from the U.S. Department of Transportation, which could amount to nearly $2 billion.
Freeman wouldn't say whether the lack of specifics on the tolls prompted DiNapoli to call for especially careful scrutiny of the bridge financing. But Cuomo's silence regarding tolls led Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Wednesday to raise concerns about the governor's plans.
"I haven't seen any evidence as to how much the tolls might go up," said Schumer, the Senate's third-ranking Democrat, speaking during an appearance in Yonkers. "I want to make sure the tolls don't go up too high. I'm really worried about that. I'll do everything I can to help, but I want assurances from the state that the tolls will be held down."
The state's timetable for getting construction under way has been revised while financing issues have remained in flux. Initially, the Cuomo administration said it hoped to get the project started in December. More recently, the administration had projected an early 2013 start date.
Now, more than a year after President Barack Obama promised to accelerate approval of the federal loan, uncertainties about funding threaten to delay groundbreaking well into the year.
The Cuomo administration has insisted that financing issues will not delay construction of the new bridge.
"Based on the daily conversations we have had with the Comptroller's office and the positive feedback we have received on the contract, we don't expect any delays," said Brian Coneybeare, a special advisor to the governor on the bridge project. "When it comes to future tolls, Governor Cuomo is committed to keeping them affordable for drivers across the Hudson Valley. That's why he's called for a special Toll/Financing Task Force which the Thruway Authority is currently putting together."
Outside the administration, there is doubt.
"It's becoming increasingly clear that the financing part of this project can't be fast-tracked," said Veronica Vanterpool, the executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, an advocacy group.
LOAN AWAITS TOLL RATES
Congressional sources have told Newsday that federal transportation officials can't grant the federal loan until the state sets toll rates for the new bridge. The tolls will be a key factor in reckoning the financial viability of the Thruway Authority and its ability to repay bondholders.
Although the federal loan would pay a major share of the construction costs, the Thruway Authority must sell bonds to raise the rest of the money required. In that process, the authority will need to assure bond investors it has the wherewithal to repay them. The toll hike was one route to that goal.
In 2012, Cuomo's lieutenants floated the notion of a $14 toll on the new bridge. When that figure triggered a firestorm of criticism from angry commuters and local leaders, the governor himself questioned whether the proposed toll was too high. The toll on the current bridge is $5.
State Thruway Authority Executive Director Tom Madison said in December that he is confident the state will secure a low-interest loan to fund at least a third of the project. The state has made it clear from the start that it is seeking the maximum amount available under the Transportation Infrastructure and Innovation Act, which would be 49 percent of the $4 billion total cost project -- a cost that includes some $800 million in costs apart from the main contract.
The loan was not on the Tuesday agenda of a Department of Transportation committee, which meets monthly to consider applications to the TIFIA program. And it's not clear whether the loan request will make it onto the agenda in March.
Recently, the Cuomo administration has endorsed budget cutting at the Thruway Authority as an alternative to a hefty toll increase.
In December, on the same day that Cuomo unveiled the winning bridge design, he also announced reforms at the Thruway Authority that he said would save $130 million in the next three years -- moves that would bolster the agency's creditworthiness. DiNapoli has played a key role in the maneuvering over the Thruway Authority's financing, publicly criticizing the agency earlier in 2012 for its shaky fiscal condition.
With Christian Wade