Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino speaks during a public hearing...

Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino speaks during a public hearing regarding the new Tappan Zee Bridge at the Marriott in Tarrytown. (March 1, 2012) Credit: Rory Glaeseman

It's been dubbed a battle for the Tappan Zee. A possible preview of a gubernatorial race in 2014.

Concerns over a new span's potential price tag, design, tolls or mass transit options have been deemed wedge issues that could derail the project altogether -- and boost Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino's profile.

The problem with the story line is the questions are legit. And the different parties know it.

Too much is being made of the politics. Any banter about Astorino, a Republican, using the bridge as some sort of issue to strengthen his chances in a run for governor is nonsense.

He's likely not running against Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in two years. Many political insiders agree that he'll probably never run against Cuomo.

Astorino still has to win re-election next year in a county that has far more Democrats than Republicans. That is no layup, even with incumbent status. And Cuomo has something like a 70 percent approval rating in New York, so the list of GOP challengers eager to take him on won't be long.

For sure, the governor is driving the Tappan Zee project, so any questions about it can easily be spun into a challenge against him. But all the commotion made about Astorino and the Republican county executives from Rockland and Putnam putting off a key New York Metropolitan Transportation Council vote earlier this week is overblown. Even Cuomo's administration said it was willing to postpone, to address concerns.

The vote -- basically an approval from area county executives and New York City leaders that a new bridge fits into a regional plan -- is necessary for getting federal financing. The three executives' desire for more information is reasonable and doesn't stymie this project: Not yet, anyway.

It's the only real leverage these leaders have to get information. "We just want to make sure the pertinent questions get answered," Astorino told me earlier this week. "We need to build this bridge. We need to build it now. . . . We need to build it right."

"Trust us" doesn't go very far these days, and it shouldn't. Not when you're talking about a potential $5.2 billion project that will be rife with environmental and financial hurdles.

Astorino fears an expedited process could give New York its own version of the "Big Dig," the 3.5-mile tunnel monstrosity through Boston that, at $24.3 billion, famously blew its initial $2.8 billion budget.

Putnam County Executive MaryEllen Odell agreed that there are too many unknowns for a sign-off. "If we haven't learned our lesson with the (Interstate) 287 debacle," she said of a local project that was millions over budget, "we haven't learned anything."

Cuomo's chief aide, Larry Schwartz, a point man on the Tappan Zee, says that after 10 years of study there is no more time for delays. The current bridge was never designed for the 138,000 vehicles that cross it each day.

No arguments there. But you get a real sense the governor's office is concerned that Astorino could stop the project completely, or at least complicate it. During a radio interview earlier this week, Schwartz took a swipe at the Westchester executive by casting doubt on the Republican's position, particularly when it comes to a mass transit component on the bridge -- thus fueling the political speculation.

When I talked to Schwartz Thursday, he said he'd been half kidding, and that after hearing Astorino's position, he believes they agree on 99 percent of the issues.

And he said,"Politics has no place in building this new bridge -- nor should (it)." He's right.

It's probably impossible to tackle one of the largest infrastructure projects in the country without a few bumps, bruises or hurt feelings. But the two sides agree on a lot -- like, notably, building the darn thing and including a designated bus or commuter lane.

It's hard to imagine a project of this magnitude not having some delays. But let's hope politics isn't at the heart of any of them. With safety, jobs and the Tappan Zee's critical place in the state and region, there's too much riding on this bridge.

Gerald McKinstry is a member of the Newsday editorial board.


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