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Make room on new Tappan Zee for bus rapid transit

An artistic rendering of one of the possible

An artistic rendering of one of the possible looks for the new Tappan Zee Bridge. This "cable-stayed option" resembles the Oresund Bridge between Sweden and Denmark. Four towers rising about 400 feet above the road deck support bridge cables. Credit: Tappan Zee Hudson River Crossing Project

After at least $83 million worth of study and years of delay, planners of a new Tappan Zee Bridge have finally come up with a firm proposal for a new crossing.

Unfortunately, it's a bridge just short of the region's needs.

Oh, it would get across the Hudson River well enough, replacing the decrepit and cheaply built original Tappan Zee with a sturdy two-span complex. The new bridge would have more lanes, too, and shoulders so that breakdowns won't tie up traffic as easily as they do now. Even pedestrians and bicyclists would be accommodated.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has made the project a priority, and the $5.2-billion sticker price is one the state can afford, even if, like so many earlier big projects, the costs spiral upward by a billion or two once it gets going.

The only thing missing is mass transit. And that's no small thing.

Transit has been a part of bridge planning for years, and when state transportation planners produced the new proposal without it, criticism erupted on every side, including from environmentalists and local officials. Better public transit across the span would give commuters from Rockland County better access to Metro-North trains and employment east of the river without boosting the number of cars pouring into Westchester.

Modest bus service has been running across the Tappan Zee for years, but transit advocates don't want bus commuters to sit in traffic along with everyone else. That would only encourage those commuters to drive, adding to congestion and pollution. Given the challenging topography, however, putting trains on the bridge could double or triple its cost, making it unbuildable in today's budget climate.

 

The answer is "bus rapid transit," or BRT, an increasingly popular hybrid that runs buses in a dedicated right-of-way -- not just on the bridge, but for miles leading to and from it -- as if they were trains. Admittedly, BRT would add billions in costs (depending how far the route extends) not just for the bridge, but for roadwork leading to it, particularly on the Rockland side, where much of the road designated as Interstate 87-287 only has three lanes each way. A fourth lane on each side would be needed for effective BRT.

Transit, the planners say, can be added someday, since the new Tappan Zee has been designed to accommodate trains or buses. Of course, the same was said about the George Washington Bridge, which was capable of accommodating trains "someday" when it opened in 1931. That train still hasn't arrived.

And so New York again finds itself building infrastructure in bits and pieces, putting off improvements when it would be easier and cheaper to do them in one fell swoop, after which the region could benefit from them for decades.

That's just not good enough. The New York area is already choking on traffic; bus rapid transit across the Tappan Zee could promote growth without unduly adding to congestion. It could also leverage the Metro-North system in Westchester as a rapid-transit choice for Rockland riders. Extended across Westchester, it could even provide a crucial missing east-west link in the county's transit system. The time to build transit fully into a new Tappan Zee is now. It won't get any cheaper later.

 

If bus rapid transit just isn't in the cards, planners should at least design dedicated bus lanes in each direction, possibly using some of the space in the vast shoulder lanes already planned. These lanes should enable buses to zoom past traffic. Higher bridge tolls, all but inevitable to pay for the new span, might encourage more drivers to ride them.

With more than 50 million crossings annually, the current, 3.1-mile bridge is a vital regional linchpin. Just maintaining it would be hugely expensive, and still leave an inadequate span. It's time to build a new one, with as much transit as we can get for what little we can pay.

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