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Tappan Zee Bridge: Mass transit compromise sought for Westchester, Rockland

An artist's rendition of the design for the

An artist's rendition of the design for the new Tappan Zee Bridge that was selected by the state Thruway Authority. (Dec. 5, 2012) Photo Credit:

Hudson Valley officials are seeking a compromise that would defuse a potential conflict over mass transit options to be developed on the Tappan Zee bridge.

With a contract awarded and bridge construction scheduled to start in early summer, county officials know they need to settle on a solid mass transit plan for the new bridge by the end of the year.

Although leaders from Rockland and Westchester counties have been working well together -- the two sides agree -- a good many transit options have been discussed, and each side has its favorites.

One potentially divisive question has to do with Westchester's interest in developing White Plains as a regional transportation hub. Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino announced last month that he favors creating a bus lane that would take commuter buses from Rockland County all the way to White Plains, where commuters could board Metro-North trains to Manhattan.

From Westchester's point of view, White Plains is well-equipped to handle the traffic -- with a robust transportation infrastructure in place and a thriving downtown -- and would benefit from the presence of more commuters, morning and night.

Tom Vanderbeek, Rockland County's commissioner for planning and public transportation, said he supports Astorino's plan but sees it as only a first step toward a bigger bus system.

"We know we have to work together so it works out to the benefit of everyone," Vanderbeek said.

Both officials are focused on Rockland County's Tappan Zee Express bus system as the key to efficient mass transit on the new bridge. TZX buses -- operated by the county -- carry commuters from as far west as Suffern all the way into White Plains, with a dozen or so stopping points along the way, including the Metro-North station in Tarrytown.

Both sides hope that bus lanes on the new bridge -- perhaps reaching as far as White Plains -- will speed trips for TZX commuters.

But Rocklanders want more. Vanderbeek envisions a system that includes not only the bus lanes into White Plains but a ramp from the new bridge to the Tarrytown Metro-North station and a Bus Rapid Transit system that would link the TZX bus system and Westchester's Bee-Line buses.

Although Astorino has raised some concerns about a rapid transit system -- suggesting it could cost upward of $800 million -- Vanderbeek sees it as paramount. With no rail component planned for the new bridge, aggressive development of bus systems is critical, Vanderbeek said.

The planning issues are being discussed by a transit task force appointed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to build a transit plan for the new bridge.

"The Mass Transit Task Force is looking at immediate solutions," Vanderbeek said. "We're focused on maintenance of the Tappan Zee Express and what we can do with the corridor for bus rapid transit."

Formed in December, the Mass Transit Task Force includes both county executives and regional transit experts -- 28 individuals in all.


The task force is weighing options against a background that offers Rockland commuters no efficient route to Manhattan.

Nearly 70 percent of the Rocklanders who work in New York City drive there every day, Rockland officials say. A typical trip -- by TZX bus from Nanuet to White Plains, with a switch there to a train bound for Grand Central Terminal -- clocks in at nearly three hours one way.

"It's no longer even worth it at that point," said Assemb. Kenneth Zebrowski (D-New City). "Come over to our side and see what our commuters have to go through. Not all suburban counties have been treated equally when it comes to mass transit, and that's something that needs to change."


Compromise on transit is proving to be a challenge as the transit puzzle involves economic and quality-of-life issues for residents who live near proposed facilities as well as for commuters.

TZX buses are forced to wind through the side streets of the historic Village of Tarrytown, where the homes of 11,000 residents nestle into the gentle hills that overlook the Hudson River.

Rocklanders see the Tarrytown Metro-North station as the nearest and most convenient transit link to Manhattan. Vanderbeek wants to develop that link -- and further speed the commute from Rockland -- by building a ramp from the new bridge to the Tarrytown station.

But Tarrytown Mayor Drew Fixell opposes the ramp, arguing it would dump buses into an already crowded Tarrytown transportation hub and seriously damage his village's picturesque, human-scale appeal.

"It would, by nature, be an imposing structure going close to a neighborhood that's already being affected by the new bridge," Fixell said.

Keenly aware that the median home value in Tarrytown tops $550,000, Fixell is worried about the impact of large-scale development on real estate. The solution, he said, is a new Metro-North train station beneath the eastern terminus of the new bridge, with access via a moving sidewalk or elevator.

Fixell realizes that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates Metro-North, would have to "figure out how to do it." He anticipates that Metro-North may not see an advantage in building a new station less than a mile from an existing one.

"That would enable a much more quick transfer and make the bus a much more desirable option," Fixell said. "You can operate whatever buses you're operating right now, and they could take advantage of this."


Ned McCormack, a spokesman for Astorino, is quick to emphasize the appeal of White Plains as a bus destination.

"The corridor is there. You would obviously have to build the BRT out toward White Plains, but it's a regional hub," McCormack said. "Tarrytown, although it's not that far off, you'd have to push up north."

McCormack readily acknowledges that Westchester's agenda encompasses not only the interests of commuters but also economic development. But he maintained that the development of White Plains as a transit hub would be good for more than just Westchester.

"It would be beneficial to the entire regional community," McCormack said. "The new mass transit will benefit both Westchester and Rockland and the commerce between them."

Vanderbeek envisions a bus rapid transit system that would allow access from four or five stops on or near the State Thruway on the Rockland side, with stops in Tarrytown and possibly at major business parks on the Westchester side, with an eastern terminus in White Plains, and bus lanes connecting all points.

"One of the big components of looking at a BRT is going to be corridor improvements," Vanderbeek said. "It's fairly complicated to just add a lane in."

Where the new BRT lanes would go is still unresolved, Vanderbeek said -- whether road level or above or below the auto lanes on the new bridge.

"There are several different visions," Vanderbeek said. "Now, the question is, does it end in Tarrytown or White Plains? Everyone on the task force has been contributing to that discussion. It's up to Rockland and Westchester to coordinate and compromise to figure something out."

Other key players in the transit discussion, including state Sen. David Carlucci (D-Rockland/Orange), Assemb. Ellen Jaffee (D-Suffern) and Rep. Nita Lowey (D-Harrison), declined to discuss specifics on the issue.


Not all of the participants in the discussion are focused on buses. Zebrowski continues to urge a bridge design that can accommodate trains in the future.

"This is our last chance, given the development time and the costs associated with this type of project," Zebrowski said.

But major players have agreed there will be no train traffic on the Tappan Zee Bridge in the foreseeable future.

"We're still working this out," McCormack said. "They're starting to narrow down the focus. In the beginning, there was a lot on the table. They were thinking rail, but that's not going to happen. So now they're nailing down bus rapid transit."

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