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Thruway Board to vote on Tappan Zee Bridge plan Monday

A view of the Tappan Zee Bridge from

A view of the Tappan Zee Bridge from the Riverwalk Park in Tarrytown. (Feb. 28, 2012) Photo Credit: Chris Serico

The New York State Thruway Authority Board is slated to decide Monday whether to sign off on a $3.1 billion plan to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge -- a pivotal moment in the Cuomo administration's fast-tracked effort to break ground on the nation's biggest capital works project early next year.

The seven-member board of Cuomo appointees is expected to back the lowest of three bids submitted by contracting consortiums who were shortlisted to build a replacement for the 57-year-old span this year.

The Cuomo administration said it will not identify the winning bidder until the Thruway Board's vote, scheduled for 2 p.m. at the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan.

Industry insiders say the $3.1 billion plan -- nearly $1 billion less than the next-closest bid -- came from Tappan Zee Constructors, a team led by Fluor Enterprises of Irving, Texas.

Fluor and its partner, American Bridge Co. of Coraopolis, Pa., most recently teamed up to build a replacement for the earthquake-damaged Bay Bridge in California.

Company officials have declined to discuss their plans for the Tappan Zee.

In a conference call with financial analysts earlier this year, Fluor CEO David Seaton said its work on the Bay Bridge project made it a front-runner.

"I think when you look at the execution of the Bay Bridge, it's gone extremely well," Seaton said. "So I think we've got a good opportunity to repeat that with a trusted partner."

The Fluor team was the favorite of a panel of architects, designers and financiers hand-picked by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to advise the Thruway Authority board.

Cuomo hasn't signaled which plan he prefers. "Their recommendation is not binding," the governor said at a news conference two weeks ago. "It's just that -- a recommendation."

Larry Schwartz, one of Cuomo's top aides, drew a laugh from his boss at a Dec. 5 news conference announcing the panel's decision, with a blunt assessment.

"As a toll payer and a taxpayer of the bridge, I like proposal number one," said Schwartz, a former deputy county executive for Westchester who lives in White Plains. That plan is the one selected by the committee. The other two proposals would cost $3.9 billion and $4 billion.

Transportation analysts say the surprisingly low bid could knock $5 off the $14 toll Cuomo officials once claimed would be needed to repay lenders for the cost of a new bridge. Cuomo has backed away from that projection, saying the toll needs to be much lower.

Much will be decided in the coming weeks when the federal government tells the state whether it qualifies for a low-interest transportation loan that it needs to jump-start funding for the project, which could carry a total $4 billion price tag when other costs are included.

The Department of Transportation will only fund 49 percent of the project, meaning the loan could be for as much as $1.5 billion, assuming the low bid is selected. The rest of the project will be financed through the sale of Thruway-backed bonds. Lenders will be repaid with money raised by a toll hike.

The full financing plan won't be known until the contractor is named.

In the meantime, the Thruway board must get its own finances to demonstrate to bonding agencies that it's a good credit risk.

A vote on a proposed 45 percent toll hike for commercial trucks that travel the Thruway has twice been postponed. The increase would generate about $90 million in critically needed annual revenue.

Financial analysts gauging the authority's financial outlook for bonding agencies are monitoring the situation. Without that revenue stream, they say, the state could jeopardize its chance of securing federal funding because it wouldn't give lenders confidence that it can repay its bills.

At the same time, the Authority is facing stiff opposition from upstate Republicans who say a truck toll hike would hurt small businesses that are critical to reviving the state's economy. The lawmakers want to merge the Authority into the state Department of Transportation.

"I think it makes sense," said Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb (R-Canandaigua). "It's not politicized. It's taking a close look at cost reductions. I'm not taking political potshots at anyone."

It's unclear when the Authority's board will take up the toll hike proposal.

Thruway Executive Director Tom Madison has defended his efforts to reduce costs at the agency, claiming there have been about $300 million in cuts to capital construction programs during the past year.

Cuomo has asked the state to come up with more "creative" ways to raise revenue before raising tolls.

Also looming is a potential challenge from environmental groups concerned that the state's plan will damage the Hudson River's aquatic environment. Riverkeeper, the organization most likely to file a legal challenge, has not decided whether it will sue the state.

"We're still reviewing and waiting for details," said Riverkeeper spokesman Tina Posterli.

Schwartz noted that in addition to being less costly, the $3.1 billion bid calls for about 600,000 fewer cubic yards of dredging than the other two proposals.

"On the face of it, looking at proposal number one, it has environmental benefits to it that far exceed the other two," Schwartz noted.

With Betty Ming Liu