A New Tappan Zee Bridge

What will replace Westchester’s iconic landmark?

 

The new bridge calls for the inclusion of light rail to connect with the county’s existing Metro-North service.

The largest capital project in New York is the replacement of the Tappan Zee Bridge and it is moving along at the pace of traffic across the span, which is to say, not very fast at all. Following years of studies, the powers that be have announced plans to build a grand new bridge, tear down the old one (before it falls down), and revolutionize the way traffic moves through the Hudson Valley.

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Will it ever happen? It’s mostly a matter of desire and willpower, not to mention lots and lots of money. Officialdom seems to be behind the project, environmentalists aren’t convinced we need it, and public opinion depends largely on how many years of a person’s life have been spent stuck in traffic on the bridge. There are some major obstacles yet to be overcome, but there could well be a new TZB in our future.

At this point, it’s hard to say what the new bridge will look like, but the New York Department of Transportation (DOT) is clear about what features it wants it to have. Instead of the current seven vehicle lanes, there will be eight (four in each direction). In addition, the bridge will carry dedicated lanes for a bus rapid transit (BRT) system that runs from Suffern to Port Chester and a commuter rail line that will connect with Metro-North in Tarrytown.

The goal is to not just alleviate current congestion, but to provide for substantial growth of traffic across the river in the future. When the bridge was opened in 1955, it was designed to carry 100,000 vehicles each day. Today’s volume is 135,000. By 2035, current projections call for 161,000, whether or not a new bridge is constructed. According to my rough calculations, if all those additional cars were lined up in one lane, the backup would stretch from the bridge all the way to Kingston, more than 80 miles away.

Then there is the condition of the bridge today. Not too long ago, drivers could catch glimpses of the river as they drove over gaping holes in the deck. Massive construction plates routinely shredded tires and tied up traffic for hours as the roadway was repaired and reinforced. An engineering study in 2000 reported that wind loads are actually greater than the bridge was originally designed to handle, and revealed that the bridge is vulnerable to seismic activity.

Repairing the current bridge was one of many options considered, but it was eventually discarded by the state. Project Director Michael Anderson says, “The existing bridge has inherent vulnerabilities and the main spans will continue to have problems, rusting forever.” Numerous alternatives were studied, but all were costly. The cheapest was a bare-bones maintenance project for the current bridge at $900 million; the next was a major refurbishment to bring it up to par structurally for $3.4 billion.

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But these are repairs; neither option would get more people across the river any faster, nor would they do anything to establish a cross-county rapid transit system that we sorely need, according to Anderson. He says there are two commuter markets that must be served by whatever is built. One is the cross-county and intra-county travel; the other is commuters from west of the Hudson, who would use the bridge to go to Manhattan if they had the opportunity. About 8,000 commercial vehicles cross the bridge each day, too, many if not most of them local delivery trucks of one sort or another. Watching them idle in traffic is an economic and environmental nightmare.

Currently, more than 18,000 people commute across the bridge each day to jobs in Westchester, the Bronx, and Connecticut, according to DOT figures. Major destinations are White Plains, Route 9A north of Elmsford, and along the Broadway corridor in Tarrytown. Another 8,000 travel from Orange County. Nearly 5,000 Westchester residents drive across the bridge to Rockland and Orange County work destinations each day. “As business grows in Westchester and jobs increase, we will continue to draw commuters from all over the region as part of our labor force,” says Marsha Gordon, president of the Westchester Business Council and co-chair of the Tappan Zee Bridge/I-287 Futures Task Force. “It goes both ways; as the regional economy grows, Westchester residents will have more choices about where to work.”

 

 

While Westchester’s population is expected to grow by a stately 3 percent from 2010 to 2020, Orange and Rockland’s are projected to jump 11 percent and 6 percent, respectively, adding more than 60,000 potential new commuters between them. Looking at the 2035 projections the project uses, Westchester’s workforce is expected to grow by more than 100,000 jobs, but our population will increase by only half that number. That means thousands and thousands of additional people trying to get to work in Westchester in the morning—many of them across the Tappan Zee.

But wait a minute. You may notice that the proposed bridge has only one more lane for cars and trucks, which doesn’t sound like much of an improvement. Going from seven to eight lanes might do away with the always-entertaining “zipper machines” that move the center barrier twice each day, but that extra lane is not going to do much to speed up the snail parade that can stretch from the toll booths back to the Palisades Parkway.

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That’s where mass transit comes into play in the state’s master plan. The BRT system would stretch 30 miles from Suffern to Port Chester, run on (ideally) a dedicated roadway of some sort (including lanes on the bridge), and stop at eight to 10 stations that would connect to existing transit hubs like the White Plains Transportation Center and the Port Chester-New Haven line station. The BRT that’s proposed for Westchester is similar to what has been successful in Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Boston, and some places in California, according to Anderson. It also can carry many more riders than train service can along such routes. Commuters to Manhattan, the other market served, will be carried over the bridge by a new rail link to Metro-North’s Hudson line in Tarrytown.

Together, the two mass-transit features are expected to not only handle all the projected growth in traffic on the bridge, but persuade many commuters who now drive to make the ecologically-sound switch to bus or train. One big inducement would be time savings. If the DOT estimates are correct, door-to-door travel time from Suffern to White Plains will drop from 96 minutes to 44 minutes.

Not everyone is buying all these projections and rosy estimates. “We have a lot of substantive concerns,” says Hudson Riverkeeper President Alex Matthiessen, whose environmental watchdog organization has closely monitored the studies. “The bottom line is, we don’t think the state has yet made a compelling case for a brand new bridge with all the bells and whistles they are proposing.” He adds, “We are generally favorably inclined toward the bus rapid transit system, but we are scratching our heads about how a commuter rail line is going to serve the region.”

The whole question may be moot, of course, given the state of the state’s finances—not to mention everybody else’s. The proposed new Tappan Zee Bridge and mass-transit improvements are the largest single capital project in the state, according to Anderson. And no one has the slightest idea how to pay for it.

The bridge itself is expected to cost $6.4 billion. The high-speed bus system will add $2.9 billion. Then throw in another $6.7 billion to build the new commuter rail line. That adds up to the often-quoted $16 billion price tag.

But the DOT’s preliminary financial study says we can expect additional costs of $7 billion (for inflation of original cost estimates, debt service incurred during the construction, and the cost of debt financing itself—fees to Wall Street underwriters, etc.), so the actual total cost is $23 billion. Using all current and expected sources of funding (including bonds backed by bridge tolls at three times the current rate), the project’s promoters can come up with about $4 billion. That’s a little short.

Will we see a new Tappan Zee Bridge in 2020? Ignoring the $23 billion gorilla in the room, the environmental review process is slated for about two years and construction could begin in 2012. First will come the new highway connections on either side of the river, followed by the bridge itself, and, finally, the rail line and BRT system. If all proceeds without delays (okay—not very likely), it would be completed around 2020.
—Dave Donelson

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