Will Cuomo Scrap Transit on the Tappan Zee and Just Widen the Highway?

All the alternatives currently being studied for the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement include both commuter rail and bus rapid transit. Advocates are concerned that the state may try to delay construction of the transit components, however. Image: Tappan Zee environmental review website

For nine years, the state of New York has been studying how to replace the aging Tappan Zee Bridge. The bridge, which is more than 50 years old, requires ever more expensive repairs to stay structurally sound and was never intended to carry the volume of traffic that pours over it every day. Since 2002, an extensive public process has led to the development of four alternative plans for the Tappan Zee and the I-287 corridor. Each of them would rebuild the bridge, widen the roadway and include both a new Metro-North commuter rail line and bus rapid transit service across the bridge.

Even after the extensive public process and environmental review, however, those transit components could end up on the scrap heap.

The Obama administration selected the Tappan Zee replacement today as one of 14 major infrastructure projects for federal fast-tracking. A report from Gannett’s Albany bureau refers to the project as “replacing the Tappan Zee Bridge, along with the option of adding bus rapid transit and passenger rail.” Gannett’s report suggests that the state may have decided to build the bridge with room for transit to be added later, rather than constructing the transit components at the same time as the roadway. This would run against the four alternatives that have already been vetted, all of which include transit in the initial construction of the bridge.

If Governor Andrew Cuomo is considering postponing the construction of the transit components, New Yorkers would be left with a major highway expansion that skirted the entire public review process. The governor’s office has not responded to Streetsblog’s inquiry about transit on the Tappan Zee.

Including transit on the bridge has run into some local political resistance lately. This July, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino called for the removal of transit from the plans for the bridge in order to lower costs and speed up construction. As the Tri-State Transportation Campaign reported at the time, the bridge and highway components of the project are projected to cost $8.3 billion. Building the bridge with rail would add $6.7 billion, while the bus system would cost around $1 billion. Astorino’s office told Streetsblog that they hadn’t heard that the transit component had been postponed and that it was too early for any design to have been selected.

Transportation and environmental advocates called for Cuomo to commit to building transit at the same time as the highway is rebuilt, even if only the bus service is installed to start.

“If transit isn’t added now, we worry it never will be,” said Kate Slevin, Tri-State’s executive director.

“This raises concerns that the state may be missing a once in a lifetime opportunity to reduce traffic and greenhouse gas emissions and create a transit backbone for future development in the Hudson Valley.” Slevin noted that past promises to add transit to bridges at a later date — a similar pledge was made for the George Washington Bridge — rarely materialized.

“Clearly, the Tappan Zee Bridge needs replacing — and the sooner, the better. But let’s not forget that a key reason for the bridge’s poor condition is overuse, partly because there are few attractive mass transit alternatives to driving,” added Dan Hendrick, the communications director for the New York League of Conservation Voters. “Commuters and local residents have been calling for mass transit to be added to the bridge for decades, and bus rapid transit represents exactly the kind of smart, sustainable infrastructure investments that will help New York’s environment and economy. We strongly encourage the Obama and Cuomo administrations to sharpen their pencils and ensure that bus rapid transit keeps pace with the roadway replacement on the new Tappan Zee Bridge.”

According to the state’s own website, the transit components are included in order to “help minimize corridor travel delay, reduce travel times, provide travel choices, improve local and regional mobility, foster economic growth and improve air quality.”

Added Slevin: “Since 2002, hundreds of residents, civic leaders, and local elected officials have worked together to develop a list of alternatives for a bridge replacement. There has consistently been support for transit to be included as part of the project, which is why all five options currently being studied in the state environmental review (except the ‘No Build’ alternative) include transit. None of those alternatives studied by the State Department of Transportation included a bridge replacement without a transit component.”

Streetsblog Capitol Hill reported earlier today that the Obama fast-track process seems to favor road maintenance and transit projects rather than wider highways, and that it won’t skirt environmental reviews. If the Tappan Zee project includes a transit component, it’s a good fit for such a program. If Cuomo decides to drop transit, however, the Tappan Zee will be exactly the kind of sprawl-generating boondoggle that Obama is trying to avoid.