Update on Plans to Replace the Tappan Zee Bridge

As the Tappan Zee Bridge carries more vehicles than it was ever meant to withstand, plans for a replacement are moving as slow as Friday night’s traffic across the span—but the recession could finally change all of that.

1955: After three years of construction and $80 million of costs, the Tappan Zee Bridge goes into service. Capable of carrying up to 100,000 cars per day, the new span is heralded as a marvel of American ingenuity and a mark of the region’s prosperity, with the Tarrytown Daily News proclaiming that the bridge would remove the “political, social, and economic barriers between two great regions of the state.”

2011: More than 140,000 cars traverse its three-mile span each day and repair crews have become a daily fixture of the bridge’s rusty façade. Between 2010 and 2012 alone, more than $148 million will be spent on repairs. Meanwhile, the New York State Thruway Authority (NYSTA) is scrambling to come up with the $16 billion to replace the aging structure. According to Tappan Zee Replacement Project Director Michael Anderson, the NYSTA is “looking at a wide range of proposals” to fund the project.

Plans for a replacement have been moving at a snail’s pace.

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Currently, there are two replacement designs under consideration, a single-level design and a dual-level design. Both are designed to accommodate a Commuter Rail Transit service (CRT) linking Suffern, New York, and Tarrytown, and a Bus Rapid Transit line (BRT) running from Suffern to Port Chester. Adding mass-transit capacity is the only feasible way to alleviate congestion, improve mobility, and accommodate growth throughout the corridor. Indeed, Marsha Gordon, Westchester co-chair of the Tappan Zee Bridge Task Force, is adamant about the need for an east-west mass-transit connection. “There has to be a public transit component on the bridge,” she insists.

Before construction can begin, the NYSTA must conduct an environmental and financial review. Any plan must minimize impacts on river ecology, construction duration, and total cost. William Janeway, regional director of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation,  is “working with the Department of Transportation on evaluating the alternatives, mitigating the effects in the water and on the shore.”
While due diligence on the environmental issues certainly contributes to the delays, it still comes down to finding the dollars and cents to make it all—or any of it—happen. “Money is the big thing,” says Jeffery Zupan, senior fellow at the Transportation for the Regional Plan Association and board member of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. “What’s blocking progress is the sixteen-billion-dollar price tag. That includes the rail, bus, and bridge. The first thing to do is to remove the rail project from consideration, but even then there’s not enough money.” Adds Kate Slevin, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign’s executive director, “It’s typical for transportation projects to take a long time, but, in this case, there was a long public outreach process, then lots of concerns from outside agencies working on the project—and now you have the question of funding.”

Anderson made clear that “there are no specific proposals under active consideration” for funding the project. A number of options are on the table, including options, he says, “at the federal level.” But thanks to President Obama, construction on the bridge’s replacement may now shift to the E-ZPass lane. The president selected it as one of 14 infrastructure projects across the U.S. to be fast-tracked via an expedited federal review and approval in an effort to stimulate job creation in the wake of an entrenched recession.

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