New York Governor Cuomo pushing big rebuild of Tappan Zee Bridge on state Thruway but no finance plan yet

January 5, 2012

After more than a decade of wishful thinking about transit as the centerpiece of reconstruction of the Tappan Zee Bridge  (TZB) over the Hudson River north of New York City plus rail and bus in some 30 miles of the corridor, state governor Andrew Cuomo has slimmed the project down to replacing the highway bridge - which has a chance to be substantially funded with toll revenues. The State Thruway is procuring a design-build contractor for a new bridge to built alongside the existing 1955 steel truss structure that is seriously deteriorated as well as obsolete.  It would then be removed from the shallow muddy bed of this wide estuarial river.

Cost of the new bridge to the Thruway is estimated at around $5 billion, including the burdens of New York state's expensive union-labor only, buy-American rules, and rush effort. After nearly eleven years of dithering around with completely unfinanceable schemes for loser commuter rail on the TZ bridge and extending miles in the interstate right of way in Rockland County, they are suddenly in a huge hurry. The new highway-only project was announced by Cuomo mid-October and they hope to complete permitting and have contracts signed by August this year.

November pile driving

On this schedule there could be pilings being driven in the Tappan Zee by November.

Bill Reinhardt editor of Public Works Financing reports that the rush is "to ensure a ground-breaking" before the Democratic National Convention on September 2, 2012. The Obama administration is also heavily invested in getting speedy environmental permits for the TZ bridge.

The TZB is listed as the largest of a dozen projects around the nation being singled out for "expedited" approvals by USDOT.

Only eight months has been allowed for the environmental review and permits and four months for supposed fixed price bids after proposers are shortlisted.

No financing plan, no discussion of toll rates

There's lots of bold talk by state DOT officials about how failure to meet targets and a deadline is "not an option" but there's no traffic and revenue study of what the bridge might earn, and no financial plan yet to raise money.

We're told there is work being done on financing scenarios, including updates to an earlier revenue study that apparently produced a wide range of forecasts earlier when the transit-heavy project was the aim.  They all fell way short of generating support in user fees (tolls, fares) - the reason the larger transit-heavy project went nowhere.

The bridge toll plaza in Tarrytown NY presently brings in about $120m/year based on traffic of around 135,000 vehicles/day with southbound-only toll collection of $4.75 by E-ZPass transponder-equipped cars ($5.00 cash), with 18-wheelers paying $14.75 peak hours or $7.38 off-peak. Those are quite low tolls by comparison with the major competing crossings to the south. There is no other crossing for the 15.5 miles, 25km south to the PANYNJ George Washington Bridge, and no other bridge northward until the NYSBA's small Bear Mountain Bridge 18 miles, 29km to the north.

At around 50m vehicles trips/year over the bridge and $120m they are getting a paltry $2.45/trip, the result of heavy frequent user discounts, one-way tolling and the modest toll rates. Ir seems likely the traffic would bear substantially higher toll rates before declining much in volume.

Tolls presently half the GWB

E-ZPass tolls in peak hours are $9.50 for cars at the George Washington Bridge, exactly twice the TZB tolls of $4.75. Offpeak they are about 50% higher at $7.50. Truck tolls are proportionately even higher at the GWB, the 18-wheeler paying $45 peak hours and $37.50 off-peak - three times and five times the TZB truck tolls.

It is not difficult to see the traffic holding quite strong on the TPZ with tolls two or three times their present rates (about $7.50 each way for cars) and toll revenue being $200m to $300m vs $120m.

Whether these kind of tolls are politically viable for a state toll authority is another matter.

Lacking any finished revenue study for the new bridge and with no financial plan there has been no discussion yet of the toll rates needed to finance the expensive new bridge.  

Vague talk of state union pension funds

Governor Cuomo has talked vaguely of using union pension funds to lend for the bridge, but whatever the lending/investment a toll revenue stream is needed to service the loans. There is no significant tax revenue to spare for huge projects like this.

Both east-west and north-south

The TZB traffic is almost entirely in-state traffic, New Yorkers traveling from one New York location to another.

The bridge has two interstate designations I-87 and I-287 and it carries two flows of traffic. I-87 is the north-south trending Thruway  switching from the east side of the Hudson to the west side, carrying a mix of commuters and longer distance traffic heading for upstate and even Canada.

I-287 is a NY-NJ metro area belt route that is basically east-west from I-95 and Rye/PortChester on Long Island Sound through White Plains to Tarrytown in Westchester County and across the river to Nyack and Suffern in Rockland County. It then provides arterial routes south in northern New Jersey.

The in-state nature of the project makes it politically sensitive as compared say to the PANYNJ bridges and tunnels where responsibility is split between two states and each governor can point to the other as the one responsible.

Gov Cuomo has already alienated the large transit constituency in his state by suddenly dropping the transit component of a project that has been presented for years as having transit at its core. Kate Slevin of the Tristate Transportation Campaign told Streetblog "ten years of study and consensus (was) erased by three sentences" from the Governor's office.

The stripped down highway bridge is being designed to "not preclude" future transit should the fairy godmother arrive after all bearing the $20 billion or so for new rail lines and bridges. (They generate no revenue stream to support their capital cost.)

Nevertheless the Governor is personally embracing the bridge replacement project and is taking personal responsibility for it. (Questions about the project to NYTSTA or NYSDOT are all referred to the Governor's office.)  

One way or another it looks as though he will cobble together some financing package to cover get the project under way.

And the state and perhaps state pension unions will take on the full financial risks because Cuomo has ruled out the option of an investor toll concession or public-private partnership. It will apparently be legally a state Thruway project with special supplementary funding from sources presently unidentified.

The new bridge

They've decided the general outlines of the new bridge they want:

- twin bridges, one for each direction of traffic over a length of 3.05miles, 4.9km, 16,100ft, the same as the existing bridge

- main span of 1,212ft with clearance of 139ft over the shipping channel being either cable stayed or steel through arch design

- approach spans of either slim segmental box girder on piers 230ft apart, or deck on deep steel truss with piers at 430ft apart

- a northern bridge built first with deck width of 96ft slightly wider than the existing span and allowing 8 x 11ft lanes divided by a fixed median barrier compared to the present 7 x 11ft lanes with a moveable barrier

- a southern bridge of 82ft for 4 x 12ft travel lanes eastbound plus a 12ft emergency vehicles lane and 22ft of shoulders and side barrier

After the southern bridge was opened the northern bridge would be converted from the tight 8 x 11ft lanes to 4 x 12ft lanes westbound, a pedestrian/bicycle lane, an emergency vehicles lane and 18ft of shoulders.

The emergency vehicle lanes could also be used for buses and wide load trucks.

(see sections nearby)

Only build the northern span for the time being?

If the project is financially stretched an obvious expedient will be to defer construction of the second or south bridge, saving at least $1.5 billion. By itself the first new span with 96ft of deck, the more gentle slope and eighth lane would provide an improvement over the existing bridge.

Maintenance costs will be lower and the new bridge should be much more resistant to earthquake.

The second planned south bridge provides not only the recreational bike/hike lane and exclusive emergency vehicle lanes but also the possibility of going to 2x5 lanes. Incidents can be handled better with the wide shoulders available when there are two spans.

All this extra deck (178ft vs 96ft north span only and 90ft old bridge) is nice to have, but hardly essential to have immediately.

Traffic in decline?

Traffic on the Tappan Zee Bridge has been dropping slightly for several years now as on most other highways in the northeast. If that continued then in several years time 2 x 3 travel lanes might be adequate, allowing shoulders on the single 96ft bridge.

Such deferral of the second span would make initial funding easier and limit project debt.

If traffic grew again they could move to build the second span.

new project website:

old project website:

HISTORY ADDITION: a New York reader in this business says the geographically logical place for the Tappan Zee Bridge was about two miles downstream where the estuarial river is much narrower and the bridge could be much shorter.

However this would have been within the territory reserved by state law, defined as 'the port district' for the Port Authority of New York New Jersey (PANYNJ.) The New York State Thruway Authority was only able to build outside the boundaries of PANYNJ jurisdiction. That apparently lies within feet of the southern edge of the old bridge.

The new bridge spans have to be built on the north side!

PERSONAL TRIVIA: Your editor's first home in America was on Fairview Avenue, Tarrytown overlooking the Tappan Zee and with a good view of the bridge from our front porch. We lived there 1980 to 1982, when we moved to a new job in Washington DC. New York is a great city that has a place in our heart. Fortunately there's a Manhattan quality bagel bakery within walking distance here in Frederick MD established by New Yorkers who came south too. No breakfast anywhere in the world can compare with concoctions based on a New York bagel fresh from the oven.

TOLLROADSnews 2012-01-04

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