Advocates Ask for TZB Details, Cuomo Admin Gives Them the Runaround

The Cuomo administration is making advocates wait months to access public information about the new Tappan Zee Bridge. By then, it may be too late to influence the project.

The Cuomo administration has not released basic information about its plans for a new Tappan Zee Bridge that should have been made public under New York’s freedom of information laws, say leading transportation and environmental advocates. The Tri-State Transportation Campaign and the conservation group Riverkeeper say it’s one way that the Cuomo administration has short-circuited the public process in its rush to build the bridge.

“They’re deliberately being not transparent,” said Veronica Vanterpool, associate director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

This January, the Cuomo administration released a draft environmental impact statement for the new Tappan Zee Bridge, which will be twice as wide as the current span despite not having any transit infrastructure across it. The information in the document was so scant that both Tri-State and Riverkeeper appear to be threatening to sue. For example, the DEIS quintupled previous cost estimates for building a bus rapid transit line across the bridge without offering a word of explanation.

In response, Tri-State and Riverkeeper each filed a series of requests in early February under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL, to get at the missing information. Tri-State asked to see the missing financial analysis and the state’s proof that the new bridge design would not prevent the addition of transit at a later date. Riverkeeper asked about alternatives to an automobile-only bridge and the impact of construction on the habitats of endangered species of sturgeon.

“We filed so many FOILs because the DEIS was so deficient that we had to,” said Phillip Musegaas, Riverkeeper’s Hudson River program director. The state’s refusal to provide answers so far, he said, is “disturbing.”

Neither Tri-State nor Riverkeeper has received a single document in response to their requests, merely letters requesting more time to assemble the documents. The response has been the same from each of the state agencies FOILed, including the Department of Transportation, the Thruway Authority, and the Department of Environmental Conservation.

The information requested was voluminous, to be sure, but Musegaas said the response from the Cuomo administration over the Tappan Zee Bridge differed substantially from complex FOIL requests Riverkeeper has made in the past. Responding to requests about the Indian Point nuclear power plant, he said, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission passed along information as soon as it was available, rather than holding it all until everything had been gathered and, where necessary, redacted.

Vanterpool noted that much of the information should be readily available, such as the calculation of bus rapid transit costs. “Presumably they have that data, because they’ve used it to justify dropping transit,” she said. “We shouldn’t even have to FOIL this information. This should have been available with the DEIS.”

The information requested — basic documentation of the Cuomo administration’s central claims about the bridge — will likely come too late, when or if it is eventually produced. The administration put out a final RFP for the design and construction of the bridge on March 9, even before the official public comment period closed.

The FOIL issue was first raised in a strong pro-transit editorial by the Journal News that compared Cuomo’s treatment of Tappan Zee transit to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s handling of the ARC tunnel project. “Transit supporters want to ensure that cost estimates are based on real numbers,” the paper wrote, “a quest that takes on more importance as the GAO report calls into question the premises used to kill New Jersey’s ARC tunnel.”

Is the delayed release of information an act of bad faith? “That certainly is our concern,” said Musegaas, who said that he couldn’t ascribe motivations to the state government from the outside. “It fits the pattern of pushing this project through and disregarding the public’s input.”

The Cuomo administration previously closed the Tappan Zee Bridge public outreach offices and canceled stakeholders meetings for the project. In killing plans for Tappan Zee Bridge transit, a decision made behind closed doors, the administration overturned the product of 280 public meetings and the wishes of most local elected officials, including three county executives.

“It raises red flags and gives the impression that they are hiding information from the public,” said Vanterpool.

We called the governor’s office to see if they would explain why no documents had been provided to Tri-State and Riverkeeper. They passed us along to the Thruway Authority, which they said could speak for DOT and DEC as well. A spokesperson for the Thruway said that he did not want to speak for the authority’s lawyers on the record but assured me that the FOIL process was underway. He did not respond to a follow-up inquiry asking why the state would not release records as they became available.