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Low Tappan Zee bid could knock $5 off toll

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 a panel of experts as the best value among the three proposals submitted. The winning design must be approved by the State Thruway Authority. (Dec. 5, 2012) Photo Credit:

A surprisingly low $3.1 billion bid to build a new Tappan Zee Bridge could knock as much as $5 off the $14 toll hike that the Cuomo administration once suggested would be needed to pay for the new bridge, transportation analysts said Wednesday.

Industry insiders said the likely leading bidder is Tappan Zee Constructors, a consortium led by Texas-based Fluor Enterprises. The low bid was nearly $1 billion cheaper than the next-lowest, at $3.9 billion, and a third consortium pegged the cost of a new bridge at $4 billion. The three consortiums have been competing for the bridge contract.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said at a news conference in Albany Wednesday that a panel of design and engineering experts had chosen the low bid as the best deal for the state.

The State Thruway Authority will have the final say Dec. 17, when it decides whether to accept the panel's choice. Thruway Authority Executive Director Tom Madison said Wednesday that the low cost of the option chosen by the panel, coupled with an eye-catching design, is likely to send a compelling message to board members.

"It plays a heavy role in the decision-making process," Madison said of the panel's choice Wednesday. "This was a large and unique selection committee."

Among the dozens of members on the selection panel were world-renowned artist Jeff Koons, prizewinning architect Richard Meier and Thomas P. Campbell, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

"We already had a concept from the selection committee that this was the preferred proposal, and then when the price envelopes were opened it was significantly less than the other two proposals," Madison explained.

State officials declined to identify the consortium that submitted the $3.1 billion bid, but financial analysts who cover the bridge-building industry told Newsday that in recent weeks some of the losing bidders have hinted in conference calls that they're out of the running.

Several sources said the consortium most likely responsible for the leading design is Tappan Zee Constructors, which did not return calls for comment.

The consortium features major players in the bridge-building world such as Fluor Enterprises Inc., American Bridge Co., Granite Construction Northeast Inc. and Traylor Bros. Inc.

American Bridge of Corapolis, Pa., has worked on projects around the world and is currently working on the Chincoteague Bridge in Virginia. Fluor, of Irving, Texas, is involved with a project for Washington's Metrorail. And Traylor is one of the companies bidding to build a replacement for the Goethals Bridge linking New Jersey and Staten Island.

The next step for Cuomo will be getting the federal Department of Transportation to hand over a low-interest loan to kick-start financing for the bridge.

Plans are to break ground by 2013 on what will be one of the nation's largest public works projects. Cuomo has estimated the project will generate 45,000 jobs in the Hudson Valley.

"The next big question is what federal assistance we'll get," Cuomo said at his news conference. "We are waiting to see if we're granted that loan. If so, how large a loan? That is the big question right now."

Based on the cost of the leading proposal, it now appears the Thruway won't need as large a loan as anticipated to get the work done. In its pending request to the Department of Transportation, administration officials estimated that the bridge would cost between $4.6 billion and $5.9 billion. Because the Transportation Department can lend as much as 49 percent of the total cost of a project, New York officials had been discussing a loan for as much as $2.9 billion.

If the Thruway board goes for the $3.1 billion bridge proposal, the maximum amount the state could receive would be more than $1.5 billion. The remainder of the tab will come from the sale of Thruway-backed bonds.

The state has told the feds that it will pay back its debts by raising the current $5 toll on the 3-mile span. With a low bid in hand, state officials say, they likely won't have to pay back as much as they anticipated.

"It's good news," said one state official. "It's going to have a profound effect on tolls."

Transportation analyst Charles Komanoff, who has studied the various bridge costs and their impact on tolls, said his preliminary analysis showed that a $3.1 billion tab would trim $5 off a $14 toll.

"Three point one billion?" Komanoff mused. "Is that for the westbound span, or the eastbound? Seriously, it would make an enormous difference to bring it in at $3.1 billion, rather than $5.2 billion."

Cuomo administration officials said the cost could climb by $800 million to cover additional expenses for project management and aesthetic improvements during the course of five-plus years of construction.

The administration has drawn up a design-build contract that will force the contractor on the bridge project to pick up the tab for any cost overruns. And 14 major trade unions have signed a pact agreeing not to strike. A one-day shutdown of the project would cost the state $1 million.

Brian Conybeare, the governor's special assistant on the project, said the winning bid represented the "best value" when compared with the others.

Administration officials added that the leading proposal likely would have less impact on the environment because it calls for less dredging of the Hudson River.

Paul Gallay, the president of the Hudson River environmental group Riverkeeper, said he is reserving judgment on the leading proposal until he can learn more about it. Riverkeeper has said it is weighing whether to pursue legal action against the state.

"Riverkeeper isn't surprised that the state has identified a reduced dredging option," Gallay said. "We and the rest of the public need more information as to how this affects the project's overall environmental impacts, and we'll seek to have discussions about that with the state as soon as possible."

Cuomo said the yearlong push to move the project forward after years of endless debate is an indication of his administration's commitment to getting big things done.

"This project was pushed, managed, cajoled every step of the way," Cuomo said during the news conference. "What we were trying to do was impossible. To make this much progress on building a bridge in a year. It can take a year to buy a new desk in this place."

With Betty Ming-Liu

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