What are the chances drivers using the Tappan Zee Bridge will be smacked with a whopping $15 toll -- the cost of crossing from Brooklyn to Staten Island on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge?
Not likely, said Charles Komanoff, a transportation economist who has studied the State Thruway Authority's financial plan for replacing the Tappan Zee Bridge and its potential impact on tolls.
Komanoff estimated that if the Thruway Authority's current funding plan holds, the Tappan Zee's $5 toll would increase to somewhere between $8 and $10 to pay back the cost of replacing the bridge.
He said linking the New York City metropolitan area's costlier bridge tolls to future Tappan Zee Bridge tolls misses the point.
"I continue to feel it's misleading to compare Tappan Zee Bridge tolls to the George Washington or the Verrazano, at least for residents of Rockland, Westchester and nearby counties," Komanoff said. "The idea that TZB tolls will be less than -- or at least no greater than -- the George Washington Bridge or the Verrazano is much less salient than the fact that they will be going up considerably."
Besides, said the Manhattan-based Komanoff, people commuting into the city have more options.
"There are a myriad of ways to cross the Hudson down here -- bus, ferry, train, even bicycle," Komanoff said. "In the Hudson Valley, it's pretty much just auto."
And high city tolls create an incentive for commuters to get out of their cars and use mass transit.
Last summer, officials in Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's administration officials tried to link future Tappan Zee tolls to what drivers pay at Hudson River crossings to the south. At a public meeting, Cuomo aide Larry Schwartz suggested tolls would have to go as high as $14 to cover the cost of the nearly $4 billion bridge, set to be completed in about five years.
Days later, the administration beat a hasty retreat when Cuomo said a $14 toll was unrealistically high. So far, no word has emerged out of Albany on how high tolls will be. And it could be months before the number is revealed. In the coming weeks, Cuomo is expected to name a task force to study the toll issue.
Aiding the state's effort to keep costs down is a $3.9 billion price tag for a new bridge, some $1 billion less than earlier estimates.
Two weeks ago, the state announced it's in line for a $1.5 billion, low-interest federal loan through the Transportation Infrastructure Financing and Innovation Act to kick-start its funding plan. The remainder will be paid back by the sale of Thruway Authority bonds.
It all will have to be paid back with extra revenue from toll hikes.
"Our goal is to keep future tolls on the bridge affordable, and this goal will guide the work of the Toll-Financing Task Force," said Dan Weiller, a spokesman for the Thruway Authority. "Maximizing federal support, including a $1.5 billion, long-term, low-interest TIFIA loan, and finding additional sources of revenue, will help us do that."
By the state's own analysis, even a 300 percent jump in tolls wouldn't diminish many of the average 138,000 trips across the bridge every day. Officials estimate that such a hike would mean a less than a 9 percent drop in traffic. They spelled out their thinking in their application letter for the TIFIA loan.
"The George Washington Bridge to the south is already overcrowded; the four-lane, twin-span Newburgh-Beacon Bridge [itself in need of a $100 million deck replacement] is 40 miles to the north; and the two-lane Bear Mountain Bridge, which lies in between, lacks direct connections to the interstate highway system," state officials said in their application letter for the loan.
Business groups are hoping Cuomo makes good on a promise of toll discounts for Rockland and Westchester residents, many of whom use the bridge daily. But they know that once the bridge is built, a $5 toll -- a bargain-basement deal compared with most New York City crossings -- will be a chapter in Tappan Zee Bridge history.
"I think it's fair to say that we've had a very low toll for many years," said Marsha Gordon, the president of the Business Council of Westchester. "But we're getting a new bridge, and it's going to have a greater capacity. We're going to have to pay for it."