A $5.2 billion replacement of the Tappan Zee Bridge north of New York City is on schedule to begin in late September or early October. While this massive initiative is of major importance to the New York-New Jersey regional economy, it will also have national political significance and could even help sway the presidential election in November.
Transport yourself seven months in the future to the height of the election between President Obama and the still undetermined Republican candidate. Now imagine Obama standing at a podium, side-by-side with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and a host of New York members of Congress. Cheering them on will be hundreds or perhaps even thousands of now happily employed construction workers.
Talk about a great photo op for the President's re-election campaign! The event will be broadcast on every major media outlet across the country. While the Republicans and Democrats in Washington will continue to battle to a frustrating stalemate over key issues such as deficit reduction and program spending, the President will be able to tout a project that will produce thousands of jobs that was fast-tracked by the federal government after more than a decade of studies and delay.
To understand the magnitude of what this project will reap in terms of job creation for the struggling construction industry, the recently released Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the Tappan Zee Hudson River Crossing Project estimates the total number of construction jobs generated by the project at nearly 14,100. Over the estimated five-year build, the project would directly employ an average of 2,819 full-time workers per year.
Last October, Obama announced that the Tappan Zee Bridge project, which had been mired in more than 10 years of study with no end in sight, would be one of 14 mega-projects across the nation to be fast-tracked in an expedited approval process. The project team, which includes the Federal Highway Administration, the New York State Department of Transportation, and the New York State Thruway Authority (the owner of the bridge that connects Rockland and Westchester counties), are now working on the environmental approvals and design for a new span to be built just to the north of the existing structure.
The Federal Highway Administration, which is now spearheading the project, rescinded the prior environmental studies that were underway, which included a number of designs for a new span as well as bus rapid transit and commuter rail to be possibly incorporated into the project. Cost estimates ranged from $8 billion to $16 billion for a full build-out that included commuter rail in a 35-mile study area that began in Suffern, N.Y., and ended in Port Chester, N.Y. Instead, the new fast-tracked study now involves a little more than three miles from Nyack to Tarrytown, N.Y., and is focused solely on building a new bridge estimated to cost $5.2 billion that state and federal officials note "does not preclude transit in the future."
That is not to say that this massive bridge project doesn't have its share of potential roadblocks, so to speak. Although the project has hit all its deadlines since last October, recent public hearings on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, which concluded no major environmental impacts from the new bridge project, have generated complaints mainly centered on the lack of a mass transit component once the bridge is completed.
In addition, a plan to finance the construction of the new bridge has not been finalized. The state will be applying for approximately $3 billion in federal (TIFA) loans and TIGER grants. The balance of the project will be financed via traditional bonding (likely to be issued by the bridge's owner, The New York State Thruway Authority) and toll increases. State officials have also said that state pension fund and private investments could be possible.
Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino, while stressing the importance of building a new bridge now, urged federal and state transportation officials to begin studying mass transit as part of the project right away. Astorino, in testimony before federal and state transportation officials on March 2, acknowledged the funding constraints associated with the project, saying, "So with our future at stake, the design of a new bridge in 2012 can't be stuck in the 1950s. Does that mean the bridge needs to be something out of the Jetson's with every possible bell and whistle? Absolutely not, but it does need some kind of mass transit component, otherwise we are not building a bridge... we are building a scenic parking lot over the Hudson."
Astorino and numerous others testified in favor of building a new bridge that would have a bus rapid transit component included in the new bridge span. Currently, there are two design options for either an arch style or "cable-stay" with two towers. Either design option would be a twin span (two decks) each featuring four 12-foot traffic lanes (for a total of eight lanes), a left shoulder, a right shoulder, and barriers along the decks' edges. The left and right shoulders would serve as disabled vehicle lanes. The left shoulder would also provide emergency vehicle access. A bicycle lane would also be provided.
The New York State Thruway Authority, in response to repeated calls for mass transit (either bus or rail), issued a "Myths vs. Facts" release to the press that stressed that mass transit in the form of the continuation of an already dedicated bus service would be part of the new bridge. The bus service over the TZ Bridge has an annual ridership of approximately 499,000, or 2,000 per day, and costs New York State $2 million a year.
The Thruway Authority states that building a separate bus and rail mass transit system through Westchester and Rockland counties would involve 64 miles of further construction that "would cost up to $5.3 billion, and once the system was built it could cost $80 million to operate it. This means it could cost more to build and operate a separate mass transit system than to build the new Tappan Zee Bridge."
Finally, then there is the debate as to what to do with the existing Tappan Zee Bridge. Some are arguing to save the rusting bridge as a park or a walkway that spans almost 3.5 miles. Others believe the annual maintenance is too steep (state officials estimate it will cost $1.3 billion over the next decade to keep the bridge in good repair) and that the state should allow the demolition, expected to cost $150 million, to proceed once the new span is completed.
While there are issues to be addressed, federal and state transportation officials are working at break-neck speed to complete the environmental and financial reviews to get this project started by the late summer or early fall and, perhaps most importantly, before Election Day. Stay tuned.