Tappan Zee Bridge vote: County execs mull options

Workers continue early construction of pilings, from barges,

Workers continue early construction of pilings, from barges, just north of the Tappan Zee Bridge crossing from Westchester to Rockland County, in background. These pilings allowed proposers to conduct demonstrations of boring to ascertain the composition of the riverbed and a pile-driving project that will determine the load capacity of seven locations in the future path of the bridge. The pile-driving demonstration project was the first physical preparatory work for the new Tappan Zee Bridge. (March 13, 2012) (Credit: Rory Glaeseman)

A vote that gives Lower Hudson Valley's three county executives the power to throw a wrench into the fast-tracked proposal for the new $5.2 billion Tappan Zee Bridge project has been delayed until at least July.

The vote, originally set for June 21, was pushed back to July 10 by the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, an organization consisting of local government leaders who must unanimously agree on long-range regional transportation plans in order to qualify for federal project funding.

The vote will be on a very specific point that requires the new bridge to meet federal air quality emission standards. If the board green-lights the project on this issue, then the new Tappan Zee Bridge can be included in list of long-term projects in the New York region that can chase federal funding dollars.

The Lower Hudson Valley county executives, who hold three of the nine votes on the Council, say the vote's timing puts them on the spot because they have so little specific information about the bridge and might feel compelled to argue against its approval at this time.

"None of us wants to hold it up," said Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino. "[But I need] to have my questions answered so that I can make an informed vote."

The county leaders have previously said that they have questions related to mass transit, tolls, design details, financing and environmental impact.

Meanwhile, the project is racing ahead in ways that might provide both some answers and more questions. Four teams bidding on the contract for the project must submit their designs and construction plans by July 27. Also pending is completion of a final environmental impact statement, a massive document that must be finished before the bridge-building contract can be awarded. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been hoping to put shovels in the ground by the end of the year.

Attempts to get answers have been a "frustration," said Putnam County Executive MaryEllen Odell, a Republican, who said that she is in "lockstep" on this issue with Republican Astorino. Odell said that her main concern is the bridge's ability to fulfill its original mandate as an evacuation route during emergencies, especially in a post-9/11 world. "You can't dump out 8 million people off Manhattan island and send them up and out unless the TZ Bridge can handle that," Odell said.

Rockland County Executive Scott Vanderhoef, a Republican, has also been vocal on the lack of available information. "We are operating in a vacuum," said his spokesman Ron Levine.

The big problem with the bridge project is that no one knows how to pay for it. And while the state figures that out, the only alternative is to keep moving forward, said Robert "Buzz" Paaswell, transportation expert and City College's distinguished professor of civil engineering.

"The lack of funds is providing such a constraint that everyone is grabbing at straws," Paaswell explained. "They just want to keep meeting deadlines to show civic responsibility," specially since "New York needs infrastructure to support jobs. Everyone agrees on that." He said the process will continue through the rest of the year until "somehow money drops out of the sky."

NYMTC officials said they rescheduled the meeting to July 10 because of internal technical problems. The group is required to hold a monthlong, pre-meeting public comment period on the bridge issue and other agenda items. But the process was disrupted because the NYMTC website crashed, which blocked emailed public responses and prompted the need for a time extension that, in turn, pushed back the meeting date.

Albany's request for a $2 billion loan was passed over in the first round of projects slated to receive federal transportation funds. Although the state hopes to be included in a future round, those funds have not yet been authorized by Congress for the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program.

Given the unanswered questions, Astorino said the vote may need to be postponed again. "Maybe this vote needs to come at the end when we have all the information as opposed to the beginning when we don't," he said.

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