The Tappan Zee Questions Cuomo Won’t Answer and the Times Won’t Ask

Governor Andrew Cuomo isn't telling the public -- or the New York Times -- important facts about his plans for a new Tappan Zee Bridge. Photo: Angel Franco/Newsday

After reporting yesterday that the Westchester and Rockland county executives have the power to put the brakes on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plans for a new Tappan Zee Bridge built without transit, Streetsblog received an email from Cuomo spokesperson Matt Wing. Wing, who has in the past told us that we were not to contact the governor’s office for Tappan Zee questions, but send them instead to the Thruway Authority, complained that we hadn’t reached out to him and insisted that we include this statement:

“If streetsblog cared at all about the facts and fairness, they would for once report that we are investing 300 million dollars to ensure the new bridge can accommodate mass transit on day 1 – if streetsblog and the county executives support spending an extra 5 billion dollars on building mass transit systems in the counties on either side of the bridge, that’s a different story entirely.”

There’s a lot wrong with that statement, but it’s a welcome development that the governor’s office is ready to engage with us on the facts. Now that we’ve entered into a productive dialogue, here are some questions for the Cuomo administration that we’ve been trying to get answered, to no avail:

  • How did the state determine that bus rapid transit would cost $5 billion? In 2009, cost estimates by the state for a 30-mile transit corridor ranged from $897 million to $2.5 billion. Under Cuomo, that number has gone up between two and five times, and no justification has been provided. The local American Planning Association chapter believes “the costs associated with the BRT option appear to be inflated.” Show us the math.
  • Who is going to pay for the new bridge? The state still hasn’t released a plan to fund or finance the new Tappan Zee, even as it moves toward construction. Will the Tappan Zee be paid for with $16 tolls across the bridge, toll hikes hitting the entire Thruway system up through Buffalo, or tax dollars from New York’s millions of car-free families? Will the bridge be paid for responsibly, or with debt that will saddle the state for generations? Thruway head Tom Madison and Cuomo have both refused to say.
  • Why is transit considered “unaffordable”? Right now, there’s just as clear a sense of how to pay for the transit-less bridge as there would be for how to add in transit: none at all. Moreover, why is it affordable to build the new bridge to be literally twice as wide as the current span rather than opt for a more modest upgrade or rehab?
  • How exactly does the new span not preclude the inclusion of transit? The Cuomo administration has made much of the fact that while it isn’t building any transit infrastructure across the Tappan Zee Bridge, it isn’t actively blocking the later addition of transit. But there’s little proof that the state’s designs cross even that low bar. For example, buses would theoretically be allowed to run along the new span’s extra-wide shoulders. But those shoulders narrow to only six feet wide near one end of the bridge, not wide enough for a bus. How would transit actually fit? The administration isn’t saying.

We’re looking forward to printing the answers.

One place that should be shedding some light on the opaque process surrounding the planning of the new Tappan Zee Bridge is the New York Times, which ran an article on the project today. After running multiple stories and an editorial on the distraction that was the Tappan Zee Bridge greenway, the paper of record has at long last finally mentioned the biggest story about the bridge: the missing transit.

It’s an important piece in many ways, providing the most visible coverage to date on the substantial criticisms of the project, which have come from county executives, state senators, mayors, environmentalists and budget watchdogs alike. Unfortunately, the piece, written by Peter Applebome, fails to utilize the paper’s substantial investigative resources or seriously challenge Governor Cuomo’s unsupported assertions.

Problematically, Applebome starts by assuming that the new bridge will be an improvement. “Alas, the bridge may end up better, but there has been no more love for this project,” he writes by way of introducing the many critiques of the project.

The greater weakness of the piece, however, is the willingness to accept Cuomo’s positions at face value, or to merely juxtapose them with criticism in a “he said, she said” style. Providing one reason why transit was dropped from the bridge, the Times reports that “Mr. Cuomo said it was not clear whether there would be sufficient ridership to support it.” Documentation exists — in one 2009 study, for example, the state found that a bus rapid transit system alone would attract 54,000 new transit riders and offer substantial mobility and environmental improvements — but the Times doesn’t show it. Similarly, Applebome notes that the price tag for BRT is contested, but doesn’t offer any insight into how much such a system actually would or should cost.

Given everything we don’t know about the bridge, given the billion-dollar stakes and the once-in-a-lifetime chance to get a major piece of infrastructure right, this is a project where the spotlight that only the New York Times can shine is badly needed. Here’s hoping a follow-up is in the works. We’re still looking for answers.