Touting it as a signature accomplishment, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced Thursday the opening of the first span of the new Tappan Zee Bridge, amid lingering criticism about the lack of transparency on how New York taxpayers will pay for the $4 billion structure.
Cuomo, who made the bridge one his most-advertised projects of his seven years in office, cut the ceremonial ribbon to the bridge’s westbound lane, a 3.1-mile span that connects Tarrytown to Nyack, after driving to the event in a canary-colored 1955 Corvette and arriving to a marching band greeting. The westbound span will open to traffic Friday.
Cuomo successfully had pushed for a late-night bill to name the bridge after his father, the late Gov. Mario Cuomo, in the closing days of the 2017 legislative session. The bridge will be formally renamed in 2018, when both spans are opened fully.
The Democrat, mentioned by some as a possible 2020 presidential contender, cast the project as a triumph of state government while saying that federal infrastructure is “crumbling beneath our feet” and that President Donald Trump, a Republican, has yet to deliver on a promised rebuilding plan
“More than a structure, this bridge is a symbol of what this state and this nation haven’t been doing for years,” Cuomo told a crowd of political and organized-labor supporters. “Why has our government ambition waned and gotten smaller rather than greater? I think the answer is as simple as it is damning: We didn’t believe we could do it.”
But fiscal watchdogs and political critics note that the Democrat’s administration has been vague about the financing of the $4 billion bridge.
“It’s disgraceful that on the day the new bridge opens, this project still largely remains a black box,” said Ed Cox, state Republican chairman. “While rightfully celebrating today the completion of an urgently needed public works project, huge questions remain as to costs and financing over which the governor has stumbled recently with contradictory statements. He still owes New Yorkers truthful answers to these questions.”
The federal government has loaned New York $1.6 billion and the state Thruway Authority has issued about $850 million in bonds. Together, that means the state will be obligated to pay for at least $2.45 billion in debt.
About $2 billion that the state received from national bank lawsuit settlements has been earmarked for Thruway operations, though that is for the entire system and not necessarily just for the bridge. The state has spent about $750 million in cash on the bridge.
Cuomo hinted in July that tolls from the entire Thruway system could be used, saying at a business forum: “It’s part of the Thruway Authority. All the tolls are frozen through 2020. We have used cash to pay for part of the bridge over the past two years. And the remainder after 2020 will be paid with toll revenue from the entire system.”
Cox and others said the remarks indicate drivers throughout the state will subsidize the project, not just those who cross the bridge. The Cuomo administration has contended that’s not true and that only tolls from the Tappan Zee will be used, but it has not released a comprehensive financial plan.
A toll hike is “absolutely inevitable,” said E.J. McMahon, executive director of the Empire Center, an Albany think tank that favors fiscally conservative polices. He said the Thruway Authority should have already begun hiking the bridge toll (which is currently $5 cash or $4.75 for EZ Pass users) in small increments to begin paying for the project.
“Instead, the governor has been bending over backwards to make it seem like tolls will never go up, which is disingenuous,” McMahon said. “The longer they postpone a toll hike, the more costs they push into the future” and possibly subsidize them through the state budget and state authorities rather than imposing the costs on the Thruway.
Cuomo, in his speech, took a few indirect shots at Trump, noting that the President’s infrastructure plan “has not materialized” and referencing the Statue of Liberty, some 34 miles south of the bridge, saying government should put people to work and not stoke division.
The governor, at the end, also invoked his father, saying “Mario Cuomo would be proud of what we have done today.”