Tappan Zee Bridge toll decision awaits design choice

The Tappan Zee Bridge as seen from Tarrytown. The Tappan Zee Bridge as seen from Tarrytown. (Nov. 13, 2012) Photo Credit: Faye Murman

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo is holding off on determining toll rates for the proposed new Tappan Zee Bridge until he unveils a new design and a price tag for the megaproject, sources have told Newsday.

Officials now feel the design decisions must come first because the revenue needs of the State Thruway Authority may vary significantly depending on which design is selected, informed sources said. Cuomo has set the maximum cost of the replacement bridge at $5.9 billion, but he has said it could be less expensive depending on the design.

The Thruway Authority is expected to choose a winning design and construction consortium -- three consortiums have been competing for the bridge contract -- in coming weeks.

Anticipation over the announcement is mounting. Cuomo has engaged in more than a year of outreach with the public regarding the new bridge, negotiating personally with local officials and sending a team of top lieutenants to a series of town hall discussions about the project.

But how the governor will pay for the bridge is still unanswered.

"All of us are holding our breath waiting to see what the final proposal will be and what the final cost will be," said Veronica Vanterpool, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a group that has advocated for mass transit and bike paths on new bridge. "Financial issues still remain at the forefront of this anticipation."

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A key piece of the puzzle is how much help the state will receive from Washington. Cuomo has applied to the U.S. Department of Transportation for a low-interest loan to help pay for the bridge. He has requested the largest loan amount available under federal guidelines -- 49 percent of the bridge's cost, or $2.9 billion.

The loan application seeks information about revenues to be used to repay the loan, but so far the state has not spelled that out. Although the state is widely expected to receive the loan, it's not clear whether the federal government will grant the full request.

In the meantime, a moratorium on discussion of a toll increase removes -- for now -- a thorny subject from the governor's agenda.

Toll hikes above the current $5 cash fee and $4.75 for E-ZPass holders already have stirred controversy. In August, Cuomo officials provoked howls of protest among Hudson Valley drivers when they floated the possibility of a $14 cash toll on the new bridge.

In the midst of the outcry that followed, the governor promised to establish a task force to examine how to keep tolls affordable on the proposed new bridge. But he has yet to appoint members of that task force. Brian Conybeare, an adviser to Cuomo, said in an email Monday that the governor is still committed to convening the panel.

"Gov. Cuomo is committed to creating a toll/financing task force to help keep any future toll increase on the Tappan Zee Bridge as low as possible," Conybeare said. "The task force will be made up of local, state and federal leaders who will try to find alternative revenue sources, grants and ways to lower the cost of borrowing, and the final toll price will not be known until the group convenes and gets to work."

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