The Cuomo administration's quest to build a new Tappan Zee Bridge may yet be dogged by concerns about financing and by pockets of opposition in the riverfront communities close to the construction site, but all of that is little more than background noise to the governor, political insiders say.
His own top lieutenants describe Gov. Andrew Cuomo as a man on a mission, where the bridge is concerned, bent on changing the "do-nothing" reputation of state government by building big.
At a projected cost of $5.2 billion, the bridge qualifies.
"His message has been the same since he's taken office, and that is to make state government work," said Larry Schwartz, secretary to the governor and one of Cuomo's key political operatives. "Albany became dysfunctional. It stopped working for the people of New York State. And one subset of this is making sure we can build big projects."
Key political operatives see the administration orchestrating the emergence of Cuomo as a man of action in an era when voters are fed up with gridlock.
"That's what this is all about politically," said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political strategist who has managed more than one campaign against Cuomo. "The real issue for him is to be able to solve problems that other governors have been unable to solve. You can't count Andrew Cuomo out, because he's done things no one else thought could be done."
The governor brushes off discussion of a presidential run in 2016, but experienced political strategists are alert to that possibility, convinced that the rise of a colossal new bridge across the Hudson River and the creation of some 45,000 related jobs would thrust Cuomo onto the national stage and give him the perfect backdrop for a presidential campaign.
"He's proving the old adage that the best politics is good government," said Evan Stavisky, a Democratic strategist who has run campaigns for dozens of candidates in New York State. "For years, the perception has been that the state can't get things done. Andrew Cuomo is out to destroy that perception."
GETTING BIDDERS, UNIONS IN LINE
Cuomo's drive for a new bridge began in earnest in November, when he engineered the passage into law of the Infrastructure Investment Act, which altered the rules for bidders on major public works projects in New York State.
The law permits state authorities to screen bidders for special capabilities relating to major projects and to require that single entities handle both design and build phases -- taking full responsibility for execution of their designs. More importantly, the law holds bidders responsible for delivery of projects at the agreed-upon cost. In the past, taxpayers had been forced to foot the bill for cost overruns, even when the state was not to blame.
Another key step toward a new bridge came in June, when Cuomo struck a deal with 14 major trade unions that would benefit from the construction of a bridge. The sweeping labor deal ensured that union members would gain thousands of new jobs if a new bridge is built, but it also limited overtime and included a no-strike clause guaranteeing labor peace while a bridge is under construction.
In recent weeks, Cuomo has put together a major public relations push, commissioning Schwartz as the leader of a community outreach team that has been conducting town meetings up and down the Hudson River. The meetings have been promoted as occasions when team members can gather feedback for Cuomo. Last week, the outreach team added Brian Conybeare, who in early July -- as a broadcast anchor with News12 Westchester -- conducted a televised town meeting on the bridge, sponsored by News12 and Newsday.
Both News12 and Newsday are owned by Cablevision.
Schwartz has been active behind the scenes as well, leveraging the powers of the governor's office aggressively. Public officials who have seen him in action on the bridge project describe him as relentless and driven.
"You walk into his office and it's 'What do you want? How can we get this done?' " said a longtime Democratic insider who preferred to remain anonymous. "He's humorless."
The outreach team has been crisscrossing Westchester and Rockland counties with a message that is monotonously on point. All of the criticisms and objections will be brought to the governor, Schwartz said.
In towns like South Nyack and Tarrytown, Schwartz has heard residents fret that they will be overrun with traffic during the five-year construction period, only to see their quality of life permanently destroyed by a massive bridge next door. Everything will be considered, Schwartz tells them; there will be answers from the governor's office.
More often than not, the listening approach has received a warm reception.
In a recent interview with Newsday, Schwartz seemed confident. He emphatically dismissed the notion that the bridge proposal might need further analysis.
"This bridge has been studied for 11 years. He's not going to do additional studies," Schwartz said of Cuomo. "The [new] bridge needs to be built now. The [current] bridge is unsafe. It is obsolete. It has put a crimp on future economic development in the region. We need a state-of-the-art bridge that's going to last well over 100 years."
COUNTY EXECUTIVES COMING AROUND
One key sticking point with political leaders in the Hudson Valley has been transit. Early in July, three key county executives -- Rob Astorino in Westchester County, C. Scott Vanderhoef in Rockland County and MaryEllen Odell in Putnam County, all Republicans -- were hesitant to endorse the bridge project, in part because the project lacks a major commitment to public transit.
All three are members of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, a key transportation planning agency. Their reservations delayed consideration of the bridge plan at the agency's meeting in early July.
But by mid-July, Vanderhoef had come around, citing assurances from the administration that the new bridge will be "transit ready" and "a new willingness of the state team, including the secretary to the governor, in working with us on it."
The current plan calls for a single dedicated rush-hour bus lane on the new bridge, with support for train tracks in the future.
In the interview with Newsday, Schwartz said he believes Astorino ultimately will support the governor's plan as well.
"He wants to see the bridge built now," Schwartz said of Astorino. "He's not going to hold up the bridge for mass transit now."
Astorino declined to discuss the bridge project with Newsday, but did speak with News12 on Friday.
"I want to vote yes," Astorino told News12 Friday. "I am sure ultimately, I will vote yes, but we want to have assurances from the governor and that's what these discussions are about."
Political pros expect Schwartz to continue to work toward compromise, while using the governor's power aggressively to win Astorino's support.
"In the end, Astorino has got to understand that Gov. Cuomo has an aggressive plan to build this bridge," Stavisky said. "If you want to stand in the way of progress, you do that at your own peril."
Yesterday, Odell said she expects to support the bridge in the end but first needs to be assured that the administration's cost containment measures will work. She said she had discussed her reservations with Cuomo and believes the administration is moving in the right direction.
"I think we're going to get there," Odell said. "He completely understood why I'm taking this position. Before I go to my constituents, I want to make sure that this passes the straight face test."
Republican political strategist Tony Sayegh said the governor needs to take a closer look at mass transit options -- or risk accusations that he played politics with the bridge.
"He clearly wants to have the bridge built before he completes his first term; I understand that," said Sayegh, manager of several statewide Republican campaigns. "But it's more important to build a bridge for the 21st century. It has to have some level of mass transit or it will become obsolete the minute it's built."
Sayegh, for one, doesn't buy Schwartz's claim that adding mass transit now would double the cost of the bridge.
"I don't think Larry Schwartz ever worried about things costing too much," he quipped. "It's really not about cost. I think the governor has to be a lot more broad-minded about the type of bridge we're building here."
Cuomo himself has not discussed the transit options for the bridge in detail. The governor answered a question about transit for the bridge during an event in Syracuse on Thursday. The question had to do with bus rapid transit, a system for streamlining bus traffic. The system would require strong support from communities on both sides of the Hudson and would increase the cost of the bridge project substantially.
"I would not support putting the bus system on both sides," Cuomo said Friday. "I believe in mass transit but I don't think we can afford it right now."
FUNDING REMAINS UNCERTAIN
The administration still hasn't figured out the financing for the project, but it did hear some good news on that front last week when U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced the availability of $17 billion in new loans through the Transportation Infrastructure and Finance Act.
When administrators of the act denied a loan for the bridge in the spring, the project was set back. The availability of the new funding gives the administration another shot at billions in federal loans for a new bridge.
Such uncertainties convince political science professor Jeanne Zaino that the vision of a new bridge has enticed Cuomo to leave his own comfort zone.
"It's interesting that he is staking so much politically on the bridge for someone who has been so cautious politically," Zaino said.
"I think he's looking for achievements, notches on his belt, and this will be one if he gets it done. But there are some real questions here. This is one of the riskiest things he's done as governor so far. You have committed to a project without knowing where the financing is coming from, and there's the mass transit question. If these issues aren't addressed, he opens himself up to major questions."
Polls suggest that the governor's program of aggressive action on the bridge hasn't hurt his popularity any -- not yet, anyway. The results of a Quinnipiac University poll released last week put the governor's approval rating at a remarkable 73 percent, while giving Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton the edge if they both ran for president.
Schwartz won't say where building a new bridge falls among the governor's priorities.
"I wouldn't touch that with a 10-foot pole," he said.
But Sheinkopf, who has been observing the younger Cuomo since he was in his 20s -- working behind the scenes for his father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo -- believes nothing is more important to Andrew Cuomo than a new Tappan Zee Bridge.
"They have very different styles," Sheinkopf said of father and son. "Andrew Cuomo is a much more practical guy. Getting things done is very important. Showing achievement is important."