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Thruway board OKs labor deal for new Tappan Zee

The Tappan Zee bridge photographed on the north

The Tappan Zee bridge photographed on the north side during a tour provided by the New York Thruway Authority. (March 13, 2012) Credit: Rory Glaeseman

The state Thruway Authority's board of directors signed off Tuesday on the labor deal Gov. Andrew Cuomo reached last month with 14 major trade unions who hope to help build a $5.2-billion replacement for the Tappan Zee Bridge.

The board voted 6-0 to approve the deal after receiving a thumbs up from the authority's major projects committee. One member of the seven-person board was absent from the vote. Gov. Andrew Cuomo lauded the deal.

"This agreement was forged by cooperation, trust, and goodwill, and it guarantees benefits to both the public as well as the working men and women who will build the new Tappan Zee Bridge," Cuomo said.

With caps on overtime and work week limits, the deal will save taxpayers more than $450 million while creating 45,000 jobs for work-starved unions, Cuomo says.

It includes a no-strike clause, a key union concession for a project that officials say could cost the state as much as $1 million if shut down for just one day.

Said New York State Thruway Authority Executive Director Thomas Madison: "Under this agreement Disadvantaged Business Enterprises, including minority and women owned businesses, and other small businesses will share in the economic opportunity of the project."

Among the highlights are a 40-hour workweek to be followed by all trades, with contractors having the option of scheduling their workers for 10-hour days, four days a week.

The workweek concessions alone could save the state $123 million, state officials say.

Another $2.6 million will be saved by cutting out holiday-related overtime, they say. And workers who arrive for work an hour early will get a flat $25 extra per day instead of overtime, for an estimated savings of $59 million.

The labor pact has been one of the few bright spots for the Cuomo administration in its efforts to break ground on what would be one of the nation's largest public construction projects in recent years.

Cuomo won the support of financially strapped labor unions early by dangling the prospect of 45,000 jobs for the duration of the project.

Hundreds of hardhats turned out last month for a town hall meeting sponsored by News 12 and Newsday, drowning out critics who urged state officials to carefully consider the environmental impact of the bridge's construction on neighboring communities.

"Build the bridge!", they shouted. "Build it!"

Despite the deal, a number of critical questions remain unanswered about the bridge, which will link Rockland and Westchester counties over the Hudson River.

Cuomo still has not said how he will finance the building of the bridge or whether it will be a joint public-private effort. And it's unclear whether the Obama administration will come through with a $2 billion federal transportation loan.

Two major investment ratings agencies -- Moody's and Standard & Poor's -- have downgraded the Thruway Authority's financial outlook to negative, citing uncertainty over the bridge's financing.

And critics, including Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, have refused to give their full support until Cuomo answers their concerns about the need for a mass transit component to the project.

State officials have so far refused to budge, saying that including mass transit now could double or triple the cost of the project and sink it before it gets off the drawing board. They say the new bridge would be built in such a way that mass transit could be added later.

Last month, in what appeared to be a concession to critics, state officials said they would add a dedicated rush-hour bus lane to the bridge.

Bids are due July 27 from the four teams vying to design and build the bridge.

Virtually all sides in the debate are united in their belief that the eight-lane bridge needs to be replaced. When it opened in 1955, the bridge had an estimated capacity of 100,000 cars per day.

Now operating at 38,000 cars per day over capacity, the bridge has become a predictable bumper-to-bumper crawl for rush hour commuters. Because it lacks breakdown lanes and shoulders, the bridge is a safety hazard, state officials say.

The replacement bridge would have 15 lanes.

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