Cuomo Admin Denies Requests for Information on Tappan Zee Financing

How does Andrew Cuomo plan to pay for the new Tappan Zee Bridge? The state isn’t saying — and it isn’t letting the public weigh in, either.

Why won't the Cuomo administration say how it plans to pay for a new Tappan Zee Bridge? Photo: Angel Franco/Newsday

The Cuomo administration won’t release its financial plan for the bridge until April or May, according to a report in the Journal News. That’s just months before construction is scheduled to start, and months after the state starts soliciting proposals from contractors. It’s far too late for New Yorkers to debate the right way to pay for the enormously expensive bridge.

In the meantime the administration is refusing to disclose its current thinking on the bridge financing or to provide the numbers that might let New Yorkers weigh the options themselves. Repeated Streetsblog inquiries to the governor’s press office have been ignored. A Streetsblog freedom of information request for financial plans generated by state agencies or by Merrill Lynch, which the state contracted to perform financial planning for the Tappan Zee Bridge, was denied on the grounds that they were inter- or intra-agency materials. Streetsblog has appealed that decision.

The Cuomo administration isn’t even letting legislative leaders in on its thinking. In a hearing held Wednesday, Senate Finance Committee Chair John DeFrancisco noted that the legislature has to approve Cuomo’s budget, including his transportation spending, by April. “Tell me how we can do that when the answer is almost uniformly, ‘We are still studying it’?” he asked NYS DOT Commissioner Joan McDonald, according to the Times Union.

Finding the money to pay for the new Tappan Zee won’t be easy. Right now, the state’s official price tag, as stated in its draft environmental impact statement, is $4.64 billion for the bridge, though many press reports have put the cost at $5.2 billion. The high cost is due to the state’s desire to build a bridge twice as wide as the current one (but which still won’t include transit lanes).

The question of how to pay for the bridge should concern all New Yorkers. As Streetsblog reported yesterday, if the bridge were funded entirely by the drivers who cross it, a conservative financial analysis estimated that the one-way E-ZPass toll would have to rise from $4.75 to around $16 just to cover the cost of construction. In a more extreme but still plausible scenario, it would take $30 tolls to pay for the whole thing. Would Cuomo tolerate tolls that high?

If Cuomo won’t accept $16 tolls, where would the extra revenues come from? In a scenario where tolls double but don’t triple, there would still be a gap of at least $1.2 billion dollars.

For the Thruway Authority to chip in the necessary money, it would have to raise tolls on the rest of the system or add tolls to roads that are currently free. New York State’s highway and bridge trust fund can’t contribute; this year, Cuomo proposed transferring $543 million from the state’s general fund just to keep the trust fund afloat. Other options mentioned in a 2009 financial study from Merrill Lynch — the last to be made public — include increases in the gas tax, the sales tax, or a new regional income tax [PDF]. All of these would be major policy decisions that affect millions of New Yorkers — the kind of decisions that deserve public debate. The only other option is paying for the Tappan Zee via the general fund, exacerbating the state’s deficits and possibly requiring some shady budgeting or an increase in the state’s debt ceiling.

At the same time, adequate information about the cost of adding bus service across the bridge is missing. The Tappan Zee DEIS inflated the estimated cost of BRT by between 100 percent and 400 percent over 2009 numbers, depending on the design. The Cuomo administration gave no explanation of where these incredible cost increases came from.

Without solid financial information, New Yorkers are in the dark about how the bridge design will affect taxes and tolls. They can’t tell what it would cost to pay for transit or understand the tradeoffs they’d have to make to include it.

Governor Cuomo needs to open up the Tappan Zee financials now, before the bridge’s design is a done deal.