Cuomo navigates Tappan Zee's political pitfalls
VideosNew Tappan Zee Bridge project has homeowners worried The Tappan Zee Bridge: 57 years later State strikes deal to save $452M on new Tappan Zee
In its 57th year, the Tappan Zee Bridge has surpassed its life span by seven years, and critics are urging its retirement.
At 54, the slightly younger Gov. Andrew Cuomo is going full steam ahead. His approval ratings are higher than ever, and he's coming off a stunning legislative victory in the high-pitched battle over same-sex marriage.
The question for Cuomo now, as he stakes his reputation on a $5.2 billion project to replace the bridge, is whether he can bottle up that magic and successfully pull off the construction of one of the nation's largest planned public works projects.
Or will his political future, which includes talk of a possible run for the White House, be twinned with the fate of an aging bridge that no one seems to want anymore?
"For too long we have talked about replacing the Tappan Zee, and we cannot wait any longer," the governor said two weeks ago, adopting a Kennedy-esque tone. "Now is the time for action."
Those who've observed Cuomo through the years say he knows exactly what he's up against.
"He wants to show that he can do things that others can't," said Gerald Benjamin, a professor at the State University at New Paltz who studies state governments. "And he certainly sees that in the bridge. This is, of course, directly linked to his aspirations. If he wants to be an advocate for economic development, he's got to find a way to bring jobs."
Before that happens, there are pitfalls as deep as any hole that will be drilled into the Hudson River that the Democratic governor -- who makes his home in Westchester County -- will have to negotiate.
He already has inked a deal with 14 major trade unions that he says will save taxpayers $452 million and includes a no-strike clause to prevent walkouts and cost overruns. One source estimates that a one-day shutdown of the project would cost $1 million.
Then there's the question of financing the bridge, which Cuomo aides call "a work in progress." Whether Cuomo is successful in landing a $2 billion federal transportation loan from President Barack Obama's administration is still unknown.
"The federal loan doesn't solve the problem of paying for the bridge," said Charles Komanoff, a transportation analyst who has written extensively about the bridge. "Eventually, you still have to find the money to pay back the loan."
Komanoff says the question will not be whether the one-way $5 toll ($4.75 with E-ZPass) on the Tappan Zee Bridge will increase but by how much. By his estimates, tolls could quadruple if cost overruns, coupled with decreased traffic and other factors, create a perfect storm of disaster for the bridge project.
Would Cuomo delay toll hikes until he leaves office? "I would like to think that the public would see through that at this point, but who knows?" Komanoff said.
Republicans like Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino cautiously praise Cuomo for his efforts to replace a bridge built for a capacity of 100,000 vehicles per day but that now gets an average of 138,000 daily.
But he says the project desperately needs a mass transit component or a dedicated express bus lane.
"There should be mass transit from the outset, not some future fantasy date in the long run that will never happen," Astorino said. "We haven't gotten any commitment on that from the governor or the Thruway Authority. And that's a concern. We don't want this bridge to meet the needs of yesterday. We want it to be built so that this region can expand."
Cuomo maintains that mass transit can be added after the bridge is built.
Westchester and Rockland counties are members of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, whose approval is critical for determining whether the state can apply for loans to pay for the bridge. A preliminary vote is scheduled for July 10.
"We've got a million questions that have no answers yet," Astorino said. "We need answers before we take a vote."
Bids are due July 27 from the four companies vying to design and build the span, which would link Westchester and Rockland counties. Construction could begin by the middle of next year and take about five years.
Astorino said he isn't concerned about the potential political fallout from the massive infrastructure project.
"If we get it right from the beginning, we can avoid major cost overruns," he said. "Let's do it right, even if we have to slow things down for a month or two."
A spokesman for Rockland County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef echoed Astorino's concerns.
"Everybody knows we need a new bridge, we want a bridge and recognize the importance of building it, but we still haven't gotten the full story about what the state is doing," said Vanderhoef spokesman Ron Levine. "The information trickles down so slowly."
Privately, state officials hope that a new bridge will persuade businesses wary of traffic on the Tappan Zee Bridge to relocate to the Hudson Valley.
The seven-lane span has no shoulders or breakdown lanes, a safety hazard that a new 15-lane bridge would address, state officials say. Rush-hour crawls over the bridge are a daily occurrence for commuters.
Cuomo also must satisfy residents on both sides of the Hudson River who live near the bridge site that noise and environmental issues will be addressed.
Those issues have taken center stage at town hall meetings in recent months and will be addressed Thursday night during a Newsday/News 12-sponsored town hall session at the DoubleTree Hotel in Tarrytown starting at 7:30 p.m.
"This is a five-year construction project, and the people of Tarrytown shouldn't suffer while they are building it," said Tarrytown Village Administrator Michael Blau. "I'd like to believe that we are not powerless, that they do hear what we are saying. But the question is, are they going to address those concerns?"