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Tappan Zee Bridge plan faces challenge from environmental group

The federal government has signed off on the final environmental impact statement.

The Federal Highway Administration has approved the environmental review of the new Tappan Zee Bridge, a key hurdle that had Gov. Andrew Cuomo "holding his breath."

He may, however, have to hold it a bit longer.

The Hudson River environmental group Riverkeeper said Tuesday it likely will ask a judge to derail the state's plan to break ground on the $5.2 billion project before year's end.

"If the state does not make meaningful changes to reduce the project's environmental impact in the next few months, Riverkeeper will go to court," said the group's director Phillip Musegaas.

Musegaas said he doesn't see the state making changes that would mollify Riverkeeper's concerns about the project's impact on the Hudson River's aquatic life.

"I think the state has reached its decision," he said.

The Ossining-based group's challenge will target the Cuomo administration's failure to take into account the impact that dredging and pile driving will have on two endangered species -- the shortnose and Atlantic sturgeon, Musegaas said.

"We just don't think they've done their work," Musegaas said.

The federal approval announced Tuesday, represents the final step in the review of the project's environmental impact and clears the way for the Cuomo administration to press ahead with the bidding and construction process.

A review panel named last week is expected to announce in the next four to six weeks which of three construction firms will win the bid to build the span.

"It is truly a significant milestone," Cuomo gushed during a morning conference call with reporters.

The governor said he anticipated a legal challenge from groups such as Riverkeeper."I wake up every morning expecting lawsuits," he said.

Securing the federal government's approval for the project, however, will send a strong signal to any judge considering a move to delay or shelve the project.

"This step . . . makes it much more difficult for a lawsuit to proceed," Cuomo said.

The National Marine Fisheries Service already has signed off on the steps the state will take to protect the aquatic environment near the bridge during construction.

A species observer will be assigned to monitor dredging to ensure that any captured sturgeon are documented and released, state officials contend. Bubble curtains will be used to protect fish from loud noises and dredging will be timed to avoid peak fish migration and spawning periods.

Riverkeeper was alone among advocacy groups threatening a legal challenge if the project moves forward.

Local elected officials from both sides of the political aisle have expressed support for replacing the 50-year-old bridge notorious for its rush-hour backups and decaying structure.

In 2011, President Barack Obama put the environmental review process for the Tappan Zee -- one of the nation's largest public works project -- on a fast track. State officials wrapped up the process that typically would take six years, in 11 months.

"It may have moved at record speed but I can assure you no shortcuts were taken," asserted Thomas Madison, the New York State Thruway's executive director.

At a news conference Tuesday in South Nyack, Madison joined federal, state and local officials to announce the approval and dispel any suggestion that the state ignored environmental concerns.

Measures outlined by the Cuomo administration to mitigate environmental upheaval on neighboring communities during construction includeinstalling clear sound barriers around the construction sites and delivering steel to the area by river instead of road.

When asked about funding, Madison said he was confident the U.S. Department of Transporation will come up with the low-interest loans the state is seeking to kick-start the project.

"We feel very confident about our chances of getting a significant loan from the federal government," Madison said.

The state has asked for as much as $2.9 billion in federal funds freed up by the Transportation Department in July. Under federal rules, the transportation loan can only pay for 49 percent of the project. The remainder of the tab will be raised through the sale of Thruway Authority-issued bonds.

The state is competing with more than a dozen other states seeking about $17 billion in federal loans.

Still undecided is how high tolls could rise to pay for the project. This summer, Cuomo backed off his own administration's projection of a $14 toll for the span in 2014 when the bridge is expected to be completed. Currently, the one-way toll is $5, $4.75 with EZ-Pass.

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