Tappan Zee Bridge: Cuomo remains mum on new span's tolls

An artist's rendition of the design for the

An artist's rendition of the design for the new Tappan Zee Bridge that was selected by a panel of experts as the best value among the three proposals submitted. The winning design must be approved by the State Thruway Authority. (Dec. 5, 2012) (Credit: NYnewbridge.com)

Other than the question of whether the governor will run for president, it could be the Cuomo administration's most closely guarded secret.

How high will the toll go up on the Tappan Zee Bridge to repay the nearly $4 billion price tag attached to its replacement, slated to completely open in about five years?

Last summer, the governor's top aide, former Westchester County Deputy Executive Larry Schwartz, said the fare could reach $14, nearly three times the current $5.


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Days later, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo suggested Schwartz had spoken too soon and said a $14 toll, rivaling the cost of its downriver neighbor, the George Washington Bridge at $13, was too hefty.

Nearly a year later, there's no word on just how high the cost will rise even as drill-mounted barges position themselves in the Hudson River, ready to begin replacing the rusting, Westchester-to-Rockland bridge with a glistening new twin span.

Will Cuomo skirt any toll talk until after next year's gubernatorial election?

Political pundits say it would be difficult -- but not impossible -- to hit the campaign trail without answering the question on the minds of voters, specifically those from the Hudson Valley who cross the 3-mile-long span every day.

"The thing that voters care about is how much, in the end, they are going to pay?" said Jeanne Zaino, a political science professor at Iona College in New Rochelle. "So it's hard to believe that he would be able to run without addressing that, unless the news is really good. There's a possibility that it's much better than the earlier predictions."

Cuomo officials contend that the lower price tag of $3.9 billion to design and build a new bridge is good news for the eventual toll. The $14 fare was broached by Schwartz at a time when estimates pegged the cost of a new bridge at $5 billion or more.

The state has acknowledged, however, in documents filed with the federal government that even if tolls climb as high as $14, less than 9 percent of the 138,000 drivers who cross the bridge every day would search out the few alternatives available.

In the coming weeks, the New York State Thruway Authority, at Cuomo's urging, is expected to name the members of a tolls and financing task force that will recommend what the tolls should be.

The panel "will examine all options to keep tolls low once the final financing on the project has been established, including expanding discount programs, seeking financial mechanisms that lower the cost of credit and borrowing, and ensuring that any increase in tolls on the bridge goes solely to the bridge and regional transportation," said Dan Weiller, a Thruway Authority spokesman.

Zaino, for one, thinks Cuomo will use the task force -- as he has others on mass transit and the bridge's design -- to give himself time while gauging public sentiment.

"It gives the administration cover to say, 'We're working on it; we want to wait to see what the task force comes back with as a recommendation,' " she said. "It gives them some distance if the news isn't all that good."

If they know how high tolls will need to go, Cuomo administration officials aren't saying. Nor do they want any inside-the-administration discussion of potential tolls to leak.

In January, Newsday filed a Freedom of Information request with the federal Department of Transportation seeking correspondence the Thruway Authority shared with the agency that oversees the Transportation Infrastructure Financing and Innovation Act program. TIFIA, as it's widely known, hands out loans to states and cities to repair aging bridges, tunnels and highways.

When the state objected to any information about potential tolls being released to Newsday, the feds agreed to withhold the details. Portions of a December email in which Thruway Authority officials discussed potential tolls with the feds were blacked out of the document.

In a three-page written objection, obtained by Newsday last week through a Freedom of Information request, Thruway Authority officials said they withheld the toll information and cash flows because doing so could inaccurately present a negative financial outlook for the authority and damage its credit rating, William Estes, the Thruway Authority's general counsel, wrote last month.

"A weakened competitive position in the capital markets from a reduced credit rating would result in higher debt service costs," Estes said in a letter to the feds. "Ironically, this would result in an overall higher cost for the New NY Bridge, the opposite of what the NYSTA and New York State hope to achieve by applying for a TIFIA loan."

The Thruway Authority intends to pay for the bridge with a federal loan and the sale of Thruway Authority-backed bonds.

Weiller said the toll discussion with the feds occurred at a time when the Thruway Authority was estimating the cost of a new bridge at $5 billion or more.

"The release of outdated and inaccurate information related to the financing of the bridge and the financial position of the New York State Thruway Authority could have had a negative impact on the credit rating and finances of the authority," Weiller said. "We are currently working with USDOT on a revised financing plan using the most current information."

Zaino thinks Cuomo may just be looking for the right time to release the toll tab and, when he does, likely will deliver it in a way that highlights his commitment to creating jobs for tens of thousands of workers.

"He wants this to be a cornerstone of who he is, the work he's done on infrastructure and his commitment to rebuilding New York," she said. "I think this is a signature for him. And there is a way to spin it that would help him."

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