Tappan Zee commuters to see more construction, traffic jams

Traffic flows on the Tappan Zee Bridge from Traffic flows on the Tappan Zee Bridge from Rockland to Westchester County, in the background, over the Hudson River. (March 13, 2012) Photo Credit: Rory Glaeseman

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Not so fast, Tappan Zee Bridge commuters.

There's still plenty more construction planned for the Tappan Zee in the years to come, before the Hudson Valley gets a shiny new bridge.

Workers are still in the midst of a $149 million deck replacement project. That had drivers fuming last week, when overnight construction crews did not get off the bridge in time for the morning commute. They wound up causing a miles-long backup into Westchester and Rockland counties.

Contractor Tutor Perini was fined $235,000 for that debacle, or $1,000 for every minute that a lane remain closed beyond the promised 6 a.m. work shutdown time. The company has said it will appeal the decision.

Meanwhile, the deck replacement work continues. It will run into spring, when the weather will be warm enough to allow replacement of the existing asphalt in the center lanes of the spans, New York State Thruway officials say. Off-peak lane shutdowns -- from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. -- are scheduled for the rest of this week.

State officials say night lane closures will be a way of life on the bridge well into 2013, although they added that the hard part of the deck replacement project is over.

"That was the portion most prone to causing traffic incidents and delays," said Thruway Authority spokesman Dan Weiller.

All 843 deck panels in the bridge's roadway have been replaced. Altogether, some 420 square feet of deteriorated steel and concrete on the 2.5-mile span have been repaired, Thruway Authority officials said.

Next up is a $2 million project to replace many of the steel plates that connect trusses on the bridge. That work won't be finished until November 2014, the Thruway Authority says. It will mostly involve daytime closures in the right lane.

Construction workers have kept commuters company on the bridge during the past decade. In that period, the Thruway Authority has spent some $750 million on capital repairs -- in other words, work beyond the regular daily maintenance. Even so, workers who have been up on the bridge in recent years say saltwater has taken its toll on the aging span.

Built in 1955 to handle 100,000 vehicles a day, the existing bridge now accommodates about 140,000 a day.

"It's a maintenance headache," said Phil Jackson, a heavy equipment operator from Beacon.

Jackson worked on resurfacing the bridge with asphalt several years ago. He recalls looking over the side at the steel supporting structures during breaks.

"Some of the support beams had big rust holes on them," Jackson said. "Salt from the river water is constantly eating away at some of the structure."

Thruway Authority officials offered up a similarly grim assessment of the bridge and its future this summer, when making their case for a low-interest federal loan for construction of the new bridge. They estimated that it would cost $3.4 billion to repair the current bridge.

"Rehabilitation would not correct all of the vulnerabilities or any of the operational and safety deficiencies of the bridge," Thruway Authority officials wrote in their loan application to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The need for ongoing maintenance costing hundreds of millions of dollars is one of Cuomo's main arguments in favor of a new bridge.

"One of the reasons that the governor fast-tracked the new bridge plan and that there is such strong support for the governor's plan is the ongoing maintenance cost of the current span," Weiller said.

Among the long-term deficiencies the Thruway Authority cited to the feds are a 3 percent grade that slows down truckers who are unfamiliar with the existing bridge. Also, traffic flow characteristics that have contributed to an accident rate that is twice the average for the rest of the Thruway, which runs from Buffalo to New York City.

Thruway Authority officials bemoan the lack of shoulders or breakdown lanes, which makes it difficult for emergency vehicles to respond to accidents.

"Rehabilitation work on the existing bridge will add to congestion and traffic disruptions due to lane closures and detours," the Thruway Authority said in its application.

All those deficiencies will be corrected when the new bridge is built, Thruway Authority officials said.

On Monday, the Thruway Authority board will vote on whether to approve the $3.1 billion bid from one of three contracting consortiums on the short list to build the new bridge. The bid was the lowest presented and was the favorite of a panel of architects, designers and financiers chosen by Cuomo. The other bids came in at $3.9 billion and $4 billion.

Still undecided is the state's financing plan for the new bridge.

Cuomo has promised to break ground by early 2013. Construction is supposed to last at least five years and two months.

The existing bridge will be demolished after the new bridge's northern span is built. In its place will go the new southern span, which will touch some of the footprint left behind by the existing bridge.

For information on Tappan Zee Bridge lane closures, go to http://www.thruway.ny.gov/projectsandstudies/projects/tzbdeck/pressrel.html.

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