In a surprise move that has enraged community, transportation and environmental advocates, a key vote to greenlight the new Tappan Zee Bridge was suddenly set for Monday morning.
The special meeting in Lower Manhattan, which was announced after 4 p.m. Friday, is a huge victory for Gov. Andrew Cuomo because the nine members of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council are expected to finally throw their unanimous support behind the bridge project, making it eligible for federal loans.
The vote was expected to take place in mid-September, but that changed Friday when state Department of Transportation Commissioner Joan McDonald, a council member and its co-chair, requested the special public session.
McDonald, a Cuomo appointee, did not return Newsday's call for comment.
The legality of the hastily-scheduled meeting is being questioned by Paul Gallay, president of Riverkeeper, the Ossining environmental group. Federal law requires that before council members cast their vote, detailed financial information about the project must be in place -- but it's still missing, Gallay charged.
But council spokeswoman Lisa Daglian said that the organization is ready to hold the meeting. "We have met all the requirements," she said. "Riverkeeper's statements are baseless."
In defense of the accelerated meeting date, Cuomo's office released to Newsday a copy of a July 26 letter to the governor from the federal Department of Transportation urging the state to get the council vote "as quickly as possible" in order to step up work on its rolling, ongoing application for a piece of a $1.7 billion loan pot made available under the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA).
"We need to act now or risk losing substantial federal funds, which could drive tolls up higher and even jeopardize the entire project, especially given the fact that other states already have applications in and federal funding is limited," said Dan Weiller, a spokesman for the New York State Thruway Authority, a lead agency on the new bridge project.
Even so, Gallay said the Monday council meeting is questionable. "When it's a rolling application, there is no deadline," he said.
This new round of controversy over the bridge project has undone the initial optimism which mass transit advocate Veronica Vanterpool said she was feeling after Thursday's news that the Lower Hudson Valley's three Republican county executives were finally throwing their support behind Cuomo's $5.4 billion proposal for a new bridge.
"The public notice came out late Friday on a summer day in August," said Vanterpool, associate director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, who will also attend the Monday meeting. "It doesn't scream transparency."
However, Marcia Gordon, head of the Build The Bridge Now organization praised the latest development as "very good news."
"The sooner we can take this vote, the sooner we can go to Washington and advocate for the resources that we need to build the bridge," Gordon said.
On Thursday, Cuomo's efforts to build momentum behind the bridge project received a huge boost when Westchester's Rob Astorino, Rockland's C. Scott Vanderhoef and Putnam's MaryEllen Odell finally gave their support with the assurance that a special task force would be created to examine ways to bring express bus service to the new bridge, and efforts would be made to provide toll discounts to Westchester and Rockland residents.
The trio -- who are among five county executives on the council -- went on to say that while there was still crucial financial information missing, they would vote "yes" for the project at a meeting of the planning group, which they predicted would be scheduled for mid-September.
Earlier this summer, Astorino, Vanderhoef and Odell had called for a postponement of the council vote, citing the need for more information.
The council meeting will be held from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. at its 199 Water St. headquarters in Manhattan. The meeting will also be webcast at www.nymtc.org.