Tappan Zee loan leaves pols wondering how to plug $500M hole

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 the state Thruway Authority. (Dec. 5, 2012) Photo Credit: NYnewbridge.com

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Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo insists he'll keep trying to squeeze funding from the federal government in addition to the $1.5 billion loan New York already has secured to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge.

"We're hoping to access even more money," said Brian Conybeare, the governor's special adviser for the bridge, at a meeting with Westchester County legislators Monday. "But $1.5 billion is a great first step."

Federal, state and local lawmakers are raising questions about whether the governor is being realistic, however, given how budget constraints are expected to dominate debates in Washington in the foreseeable future.

Asked about the state's chances of obtaining more federal dollars for the new bridge, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) uncharacteristically deflected the question Monday. A member of the Senate leadership, Schumer could play a major role in helping Cuomo secure additional financing for the bridge.

"You'll have to talk to the governor's office," said Schumer, speaking to News12 during an appearance in Scarsdale. "He's handling all the public stuff on this."

For months, Cuomo has been holding out for a long-term, low-interest, $2 billion loan from the U.S. Department of Transportation to help pay for the $3.9 billion Tappan Zee replacement.

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On Friday, however, after Newsday obtained emails exchanged between state and federal officials on the loan application, Cuomo announced that the state had landed only the significantly smaller amount of $1.5 billion.

Conybeare said the governor is now considering a request for a supplementary federal loan that would help fund other state projects, thus freeing up money for the Tappan Zee.

"We're still engaging with them," Conybeare of the conversations with federal officials.

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Cuomo is getting plenty of free advice on the subject of funding for the bridge. Rather than seeking more federal loan money, state Sen. Greg Ball (R-Patterson) said Monday, Cuomo should support legislation that Ball claims would help the state raise $500 million for bridge construction.

Ball said New York should create public-private partnerships that let private companies and union pension funds invest in public works like the Tappan Zee project in exchange for a share of future toll revenues.

"The search for federal debt-based funds and our clamoring to finance the transit option for the Tappan Zee Bridge is symptomatic of a previous lack of both creative thinking and innovative finance models," Ball said in a statement.

Ball's statement quoted Ross Pepe, president of the Construction Industry Council of Westchester and Hudson Valley.

"Public-private partnerships are a great opportunity that those in other states have but we in New York State don't have the opportunity to participate in," Pepe is quoted as saying.

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Westchester County legislators asked Conybeare how the $1.5 billion loan would impact future toll rates.

"What would you estimate?" asked Legis. Mike Kaplowitz (D-Somers).

Conybeare would say only that the tolls would be less than $14, a number floated by state officials last year but soon rejected by the governor as too high.

Kaplowitz also asked Conybeare whether the New York State Thruway Authority, which would manage the new bridge, was considering innovative ways of financing the project, such as bonds with extraordinarily long maturity dates, like 50 years, or corporate sponsors who might sponsor construction costs in exchange for naming rights.

Alluding to the fact that the new Tappan Zee Bridge will consist of two parallel spans over the Hudson River, Kaplowitz joked that the Thruway Authority could seek out two corporations who might pick up part of the tab for the bridge.

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"You could do Pepsi and Coca-Cola," he said.

Thruway Authority rules likely would prohibit such naming rights, said Conybeare, though he added that the Thruway Authority board might be able to change those rules.

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