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Tappan Zee Bridge: State sees heavy contruction on new span by summer

A model of the new Tappan Zee Bridge

A model of the new Tappan Zee Bridge is displayed before a public meeting in Tarrytown. (Feb. 4, 2013) Photo Credit: Lisa Weir

The consortium tapped to build the new $3.9 billion Tappan Zee Bridge will start prep work in March and will begin heavy-duty construction on the new span late in the summer, state officials said at a public meeting Monday.

Brian Conybeare, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's public outreach coordinator for the proposed bridge, said Tappan Zee Constructors would drill test borings into the Hudson River bottom and ready staging areas for workers in Tarrytown and Nyack in March, drive test pilings into the river bottom in June and begin dredging in August after fish spawning in the waterway concluded. The project is forecast to take five years, he said.

In 2018, the builders will divert traffic from the current bridge to the first completed span of the new bridge. Then demolition on the current Tappan Zee will be followed by construction of the second and final span. When complete, the new bridge will have eight lanes for traffic, four emergency lanes and a pedestrian walkway.

Conybeare made his comments before more than 100 people gathered at the Marriott Hotel in Tarrytown to listen to executives from Tappan Zee Constructors, the Texas-based consortium that is handling both the design and construction of the new bridge. It was the first time the consortium's representatives appeared in a public forum to discuss the bridge.

Walter Reichert, project manager for Tappan Zee Constructors, said he was excited to get to work after more than a year of planning and drafting a contract application for the job.

"We're more builders than theoreticians," Reichert said. "This is the part we like."

Conybeare said the construction timeline was in keeping with the governor's pledge to begin work on the bridge in early 2013. He said a formal groundbreaking for the megaproject had yet to be scheduled.

In his remarks before accepting questions from the audience, Conybeare touted the state's rapid progress on the proposal, noting that political leaders in the state have been calling for a replacement for the existing bridge for more than a decade, with little to show for their efforts.

"We are trying to go from dysfunction to construction on this project," Conybeare said.

He emphasized that the new span would create tens of thousands of jobs. "This project is going to put people back to work in good-paying jobs right here in the Hudson Valley," Coneybeare said.

Jim Powderly, a lawyer in White Plains who specializes in construction work, said he came to the meeting to see whether he can profit from the bridge project.

"I'm trying to see who the contractors are so I can get some business," Powderly said. "There are a lot of players involved. It's a tremendous project."

Other company officials present at the two-hour meeting were Carla Julian, a community outreach specialist; engineer Jeffrey Han; and John Duschang, an environmental manager.

The executives fielded about 20 questions that ranged from inquiries about how many minority-owned businesses would receive contracts during construction to whether the roadways leading to the bridge would be expanded. The executives said minorities would be allocated a portion of contracts and that the roads would remain the same size.

Tappan Zee Constructors' bid was about $1 billion less than the other two bids for the main construction contract. The company's plan also involves less dredging of the river bottom than the two other bids, a difference likely to lessen the impact of construction on the Hudson River's ecology, including the habitat of endangered sturgeon.

The company's "chopsticks" design for the bridge was well-received by state officials, who had vowed that the new bridge would have a distinctive, iconic look. To ensure it would, Cuomo included artist Jeff Koons and other well-known artists on a panel of experts that advised the State Thruway Authority on the aesthetic elements of the bridge before the panel awarded the main contract.

Plenty of questions remain about the replacement bridge.

Foremost among those questions is how the state is going to pay for it. The governor's staff is confident that the state will receive a low-interest federal loan to pay a large percentage of the cost of the new Tappan Zee Bridge -- as much as 49 percent.

But so far, the U.S. Department of Transportation has not committed to the loan.

Experts have suggested that Cuomo needs to reveal a plan for toll increases on the new bridge before the federal government will approve a loan. The Thruway Authority will need to increase toll revenues to pay off both the federal loan and the bonds to be issued to cover the remainder of the bridge's cost.

But, after the meeting concluded, Thruway Authority Executive Director Thomas Madison disputed those assertions, saying new rates on the new bridge would be set once the size of the federal loan was determined. The larger the loan, the less money the authority will have to pay in debt service, curtailing the size of a rate increase, he said.

In January, the Thruway Authority committed to issuing $500 million in short-term bonds to kick-start funding for the project.

For months, residents of Tarrytown and South Nyack have asked state officials for more information about how the bridge will affect their communities, including whether Tappan Zee Constructors will need to raze houses during the course of its work.

After the meeting, Tarrytown resident Tori Weisel said she came to learn more about the noise, dust and vibration she expected to experience during construction.

She'd been speaking with state officials, including Conybeare, about the construction company's plans to widen a maintenance road that skirts her neighborhood. Truck traffic on the road is already a nuisance, Weisel said. She wanted assurances that the state or the company would erect sound barriers before more vehicles start using the road as expected.

"There are details that we have been waiting for a long time that we haven't really gotten," she said.

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