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Posts from the "Tappan Zee Bridge" Category

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EPA Rejects Cuomo’s Clean Water Money Grab for Highway Bridge

This morning, the Environmental Protection Agency rejected the $510.9 million federal loan New York state had requested from a clean water program to pay for the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement project. Only $29 million worth of TZB work is eligible for clean water money, the EPA’s regional office ruled, averting a dangerous precedent that could have let governors across the country raid environmental funds to pay for highways.

Building a new highway bridge with clean water funds? Forget about it, says the EPA. Photo: D. Robert Wolcheck/Flickr

Using clean water funds to replace this highway bridge? Forget about it, says the EPA. Photo: D. Robert Wolcheck/Flickr

“New York’s request presents a unique circumstance that is unprecedented… no other state has made a request of this type or magnitude,” wrote Joan Leary Matthews, regional director of EPA’s clean water division [PDF]. “There is no evidence… that the [Clean Water State Revolving Fund] was intended to fund mitigation for major construction projects within an estuary. Construction activities arising from transportation projects do not advance water quality, and CWSRF funding should not be used for these purposes.”

The Thruway Authority had planned on using the $510.9 million loan on twelve projects. Today, EPA rejected seven of those projects, totaling $481.8 million, because they are directly tied to building the new bridge. The projects deemed ineligible are: removal of the existing bridge, dredging for construction vessels, armoring the river bottom, installation of an underwater noise attenuation system, construction of a bike-pedestrian path on the new bridge, restoration of oyster beds, and the installation of a falcon nest box.

The state will be able to receive funding for five projects, totaling $29.1 million: the restoration of Gay’s Point and Piermont Marsh, the installation of stormwater management measures, and the creation of a conservation benefit plan, including an Atlantic sturgeon outreach program.

Environmental advocates and good government groups staunchly opposed the loan, saying that allowing clean water funds to be used for highway construction would set a dangerous precedent. “It’s great that the agency in charge of calling balls and strikes has called the state out,” said Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York. “But we shouldn’t have gotten here in the first place.”

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State Panel OKs $255 Million Clean Water Raid for Tappan Zee Bridge

This afternoon, the Public Authorities Control Board signed off on a loan from the state’s clean water fund to help finance the new Tappan Zee Bridge. The board approved half of the $511 million loan that Governor Andrew Cuomo is seeking, but the administration called it “the first installment” of the loan, creating the expectation of more clean water money to finance the extra-wide highway bridge. The approval, likely to be further challenged by advocates, could set a dangerous precedent for other governors looking to raid clean water funds for highway construction.

Why is this man smiling? He just took a big chunk of change for his new bridge from a clean water fund. Photo: Azi Paybarah/Flickr

Why is this man smiling? He just got money for his new bridge from a clean water fund. Photo: Azi Paybarah/Flickr

The board’s three voting members – Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, State Senator John DeFrancisco, and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s budget director, Robert Megna — each could have vetoed the loan. Silver and DeFrancisco said today they voted for the smaller loan to limit the negative impact on the state’s clean water revolving fund.

“This will do nothing to impair the ability to make loans,” DeFrancisco said of the $255 million loan, which will fund, among other things, environmentally-harmful dredging, according to Bloomberg. “These things have to be done. Why not out of an environmental fund?”

Environmental advocates disagreed. “It is simply not true to say that the $255 million loan is ‘environmental’ funding, when the vast majority of that sum is for bridge construction and related work,” said New York League of Conservation Voters President Marcia Bystryn. “Clean-water loans are meant for clean-water projects — not for a bridge — and today’s vote could set a dangerous precedent that will inspire states around the country to start diverting clean-water dollars.”

“A raid is a raid, and a quarter billion dollars in public money should not be bandied about behind closed doors without proper public scrutiny,” said Environmental Advocates of New York Executive Director Peter Iwanowicz. “Using clean water funds to build a bridge is not creative leadership, it is behaving like a kid in a candy store.”

The state played down its use of a federally subsidized clean water loan on a highway project by insisting it would pay off the debt. “This loan will be repaid and then recycled to benefit other clean-water projects across the state,” said Environmental Facilities Corporation president and CEO Matthew J. Driscoll. The EFC’s board of Cuomo appointees approved the loan last month. Driscoll added that he hopes the bridge project can secure the other half of the loan in 2016.

“The Thruway Authority is committed to an unprecedented level of environmental stewardship,” said Thruway Authority executive director Thomas J. Madison, “and also to keeping tolls on the new spans as low as possible.”

The financing plan for the Tappan Zee remains a mystery to the public, and many opposed to the loan hoped the control board would use its power to wrest some more information from the Cuomo administration about how the state is going to pay for the bridge. That didn’t happen today. “We are no closer to knowing the Governor’s math for this loan or this bridge than we were a month ago,” Iwanowicz said.

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Two Men Can Stop Cuomo From Building a Highway With Clean Water Funds

Two men — Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and State Senator John DeFrancisco – stand between Governor Andrew Cuomo and his plan to use the state’s clean water fund to finance construction of the Tappan Zee Bridge.

It's up to Speaker Sheldon Silver, left, and Senator John DeFrancisco, right, to stop Cuomo's clean water fund raid. Photos: NY Legislature

It’s up to Speaker Sheldon Silver, left, and Senator John DeFrancisco, right, to stop Cuomo’s clean water fund raid. Photos: NY Legislature

The $511 million low-interest loan for the Tappan Zee (stated goal: “keep tolls on the new bridge as low as possible”) uses money from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund reserved for New York City. Although the fund is meant to finance things like wastewater treatment plants, not highway construction, the loan was approved late last month by the Cuomo-controlled Environmental Facilities Corporation.

It still needs final sign-off from the Public Authorities Control Board, where three members each wield veto power over new debt issued by state authorities. The loan is on the agenda for the board’s meeting on Wednesday, and either Silver or DeFrancisco could stop, or at least delay, its approval. (The other member, state budget director Robert Menga, is a Cuomo appointee and supports the loan, according to Bloomberg.)

A coalition of environmental, transportation, and good-government groups — including the Regional Plan Association, which has generally supported the TZB project — are calling on control board members to use their veto power. “This loan could set a dangerous precedent and lead other states into using these funds for projects with little or no connection to the protection of water quality and water resources,” the advocates wrote in a letter to the board [PDF]. “At a minimum, we request that the Board delay a vote on the loan.”

“We don’t think this is a good idea,” RPA spokeswoman Wendy Pollack said. “Or a good precedent.”

The New York League of Conservation Voters is asking supporters to contact board members and urge them to vote against the loan.

Silver remains noncommittal, even though the Tappan Zee loan would use funds intended for New York City clean water projects. ”We are reviewing the matter,” spokesperson Mike Whyland said in an email.

DeFrancisco, a Syracuse-area Republican, is giving a similar line. “He’s still examining the issue. He hasn’t made a decision yet,” said spokesperson Tiffany Latino.

Last week, DeFrancisco said that he wouldn’t hesitate to stop the loan without more answers from the Cuomo administration. “I have no compunction at all about voting ‘no’ if it’s not the proper use of money or there’s not a full financing plan, because the people should know how they’re paying for this thing,” he told Capital Tonight. “If I got a vote, I’m gonna use it.”

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Cuomo Panel Approves Clean Water Funds for Highway Bridge Construction

Earlier today, the state Environmental Facilities Corporation unanimously approved a $511 million loan from the state’s federally-funded clean water program to the Tappan Zee Bridge construction project, using funds intended for clean water initiatives in New York City.

The state says this is an estuary protection project worthy of low-interest clean water funds. Image: Thruway Authority

In its press release, the board of Cuomo appointees said the loan, which will help the Thruway Authority save at least $17 million over three years, will go to pay for projects that mitigate the negative impact of the highway and “will help keep tolls on the new bridge as low as possible.”

The state says the highway qualifies for the loan — half of which is low-interest, the other half interest-free — because it is an estuary protection project that helps implement an EPA-approved estuary plan. The state claims the Tappan Zee project helps implement an estuary plan dating from 1996 focused on New York Harbor. While the bridge is just outside the plan’s core area, it does fall within its “watershed-based” boundaries.

Advocates aren’t buying it. According to their calculations, only $12.5 million of the $511 million loan would go to “genuine environmentally beneficial projects,” all of which the state agreed to as part of mitigation for the highway. In addition, the Tappan Zee environmental impact statement, completed two years ago, never mentions the estuary plan once. If the bridge project is related to protecting the estuary, why was that never mentioned before the state set out to get a clean water loan?

Robert Pirani is program director for the New York-New Jersey Harbor and Estuary Program, the EPA-funded initiative that created the 1996 plan. “They’re not projects that are discussed in the comprehensive management plan,” he said of the Tappan Zee loan.

Pirani noted that it’s up to the state to determine whether its own highway qualifies for the clean water loan. “There’s a lot of stuff we just don’t know,” he said. “They need to justify to themselves that this is an appropriate use of the funding.”

Advocates are also worried that the state could snap its fingers and turn this loan into funding with no expectation of repayment.

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EPA to Cuomo: Paying for a Highway With Clean Water Funds? Not So Fast

So where's the "highway" section of the clean water fund? Governor Cuomo thinks it's hidden under "estuary." Image: EPA

Governor Andrew Cuomo wants to use “estuary protection” money from New York State’s clean water fund to build an enormous highway over the Hudson. Image: EPA

Will anyone stop Governor Andrew Cuomo from using the state’s clean water program to pay for a big new highway bridge to replace the Tappan Zee?

The governor wants to take out a $511 million low-interest loan to cover part of the multi-billion dollar Tappan Zee replacement. A panel of Cuomo appointees is expected to green-light the maneuver at an 11:30 a.m. vote today, but state legislators and good government advocates are putting up a fight, saying the deal sets a dangerous precedent for a program intended for projects like wastewater treatment plants.

Yesterday, the regional office of the EPA got involved, saying it wants the state to answer more questions before taking federal clean water funds designated for New York City and using them to build the new Tappan Zee.

The New York League of Conservation Voters is asking New Yorkers to contact members of the panel before the vote to urge them not to sign off on the loan.

Cuomo’s bridge funding ploy reeks of political desperation. Early in his term he committed to the Tappan Zee project as a symbol of his ability to get things done, but there’s no way to pay for the mega-bridge he wants to build without either large toll hikes or fiscal shenanigans and sleight of hand.

The governor is now entering a reelection campaign against Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, who is acutely aware of the Tappan Zee toll situation. Hence the current monkey business with the clean water fund.

So far, Cuomo has skirted the question of paying for the new Tappan Zee, delaying appointments to a promised toll and financing task force. While he has secured a $1.5 billion low-interest federal loan, the largest ever approved by U.S. DOT, he’ll need more cheap money to finance the $3.9 billion bridge. Cuomo is looking outside the Thruway Authority and its at-risk bond rating to better-rated state authorities that have lots of cash.

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Questions Linger Over Cuomo’s Tappan Zee Transit Plans

On Monday, Governor Cuomo announced that the state would provide $20 million for transit service across the new Tappan Zee Bridge, and is applying for a federal grant as well. While this first step is welcome news, there are still more questions than answers about what this money will pay for and how the rest of the project’s bus system will be funded and operated.

That bus now has $20 million behind it, but more work remains before service can begin. Image: Tappan Zee Constructors/HDR Engineering

That bus now has $20 million behind it, but more work remains before service can begin. Image: Tappan Zee Constructors/HDR Engineering

Two months ago, the Tappan Zee transit task force issued its recommendations, proposing a series of bus improvements that should be operational when the bridge opens in 2018, plus further investments to follow. The report did not include cost estimates and was short on details about funding and implementation.

While the governor’s announcement appears to follow through on the task force’s work, it’s not clear exactly what the governor’s commitment of $20 million will pay for. The Journal News reports that “a state official said the $20 million has been earmarked in the state transportation budget,” but there are no other details, including which of the task force’s recommendations will be funded by the state money.

Cuomo also announced that the state DOT is applying for a $26.7 million federal TIGER grant to fund additional improvements. These include a mix of upgrades that have direct and indirect benefits to bus riders, including new bus stations, improved pedestrian connections to transit, “smart” traffic signals on Route 59 in Rockland County that include queue-jumps for buses, a “transit boulevard” on Route 119 in White Plains, and metering on ramps to I-287.

Streetsblog has asked the governor’s office and state DOT for more information about the $20 million announcement and its TIGER grant application. (Applications for the latest round of TIGER funds were due on Monday, but U.S. DOT refused to provide information on pending applications.)

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The Tappan Zee Transit Task Force Has Issued Its Report. Now What?

Looks nice, but will the state follow through on building this system before the new Tappan Zee Bridge opens in 2018? Map: New NY Bridge

Nice transit map, but will it be complete when the new Tappan Zee Bridge opens in four years? Map: New NY Bridge

On Friday, the Tappan Zee Mass Transit Task Force released its final report [PDF], recommending bus improvements across Westchester and Rockland counties that could be completed when the new Hudson River span opens in 2018. But the path to implementation is vague at best. If these bus upgrades are going to materialize, task force members say it’s up to the governor to push for them.

The transit task force, created by Governor Cuomo in exchange for the backing of his bridge replacement plan by county executives more than 18 months ago, represents the first regional transit planning for the area since the governor ended previous Tappan Zee replacement studies three years ago.

Calling transit one of the “obstacles to building a replacement for the TZB,” the report says, “Governor Cuomo decided to put the development of transit proposals on a separate track from the bridge replacement project.”

The plan released Friday calls for a watered-down version of Bus Rapid Transit, with the potential for future bus or rail expansions after 2018. It is short on details about cost, funding, and implementation.

The bus system would use 50 buses on seven routes. Every route would have buses arrive every 10-15 minutes during peak hours and every 20-30 minutes at other times. The routes are focused on the I-287 corridor and downtown White Plains, with a few spurs to nearby destinations, plus Yonkers and the Bronx. The new system is expected to attract 10,150 new riders daily and speed bus trips by 25 percent on local roads and 20 percent on I-287.

Capital improvements to increase bus speed focus mostly on queue-jump lanes, which allow buses to get a head-start on traffic at red lights at selected intersections, and transit signal priority, which can hold green lights for buses.

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Cuomo Administration in Absolutely No Rush to Provide Tappan Zee Transit

After the state dumped transit in its rush to build a new Tappan Zee Bridge, Governor Cuomo announced a transit task force and promised to open the new bridge’s emergency shoulders to buses. But connections for bus riders on either side of the bridge remain a mystery, and the state continues to throw out overblown numbers as its task force is set to relegate land-side bus lanes to a study after the bridge opens in 2018.

Governor Cuomo made it an urgent priority to get shovels in the ground for the new, double-span Tappan Zee Bridge, but he’s shown no urgency to provide good transit options for the Hudson Valley. Photo: Angel Franco/Newsday

The state had previously pegged the cost of bus rapid transit at a lofty $5 billion, ignoring less expensive options and even factoring in unrelated car lanes to inflate the cost of BRT. But why stop at $5 billion? After a panel discussion at an American Planning Association conference on Friday, state DOT Commissioner Joan McDonald tossed around BRT cost estimates three to four times higher. “It shouldn’t be understated that coming up with 15 to 20 billion dollars to build those systems is a huge challenge,” she said. “It depends on how you define BRT.”

Tri-State Transportation Campaign Executive Director Veronica Vanterpool challenged McDonald’s math. Tri-State has championed lower-cost solutions like bus lanes on I-287 and local streets, which both counties are interested in pursuing.

But even modest bus lanes on surface streets aren’t likely to get much attention from the state anytime soon. Vanterpool said the final report being prepared for the project’s transit task force will likely be released early next year and will recommend delaying a study of dedicated bus lanes until after the bridge opens in 2018. In the immediate future, the task force will focus on road efficiencies not specifically related to transit, like ramp meters, she said.

McDonald refused to discuss the task force recommendations. ”We’re in the final stages of our deliberations,” she said. “When the task force finalizes its deliberations, we’ll all be happy to discuss it.”

In the end, the future of transit in the region boils down to Andrew Cuomo. ”We’ve seen a commitment to building a bridge, but we’ve not yet seen a commitment to seeing that transit will be built in this corridor,” Vanterpool said. Tri-State is calling on the governor to commit to a timetable for implementing transit improvements and to appoint a second task force to oversee transit progress after the current group releases its recommendations.

On Friday, Tri-State is hosting a forum featuring BRT projects and experts from Cleveland, Connecticut, and elsewhere around the country. ”We want to show how it has been done in other states,” Vanterpool said.  ”It’s important to show the possibilities and when there’s vision and determination and commitment to a goal,” Vanterpool said. “We’ve not yet seen that with this project.”

There’s also the question of how the new bridge will be paid for. With a federal TIFIA loan all but certain, the governor is set to announce a toll and finance task force before the end of the year, according to Thruway Authority executive director Thomas J. Madison.

In its loan application, the Thruway Authority said the cost of the bridge could rise to $4.8 billion, significantly higher than the rosy recent estimates of $3.9 billion. The pricetag for the double-span, extra-wide bridge has raised alarm about the possibility that the project will need subsidies from the state budget — perhaps draining revenue from New York City transit. The state has recently been walking a fine line, trying to reassure drivers that the rest of the Thruway system won’t subsidize the Tappan Zee, and that Tappan Zee tolls won’t rise in the immediate future.

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Ravitch: The Next Mayor Must Get Serious About Congestion Pricing

The next mayor will have to take the lead on transportation funding challenges that, while difficult to address in campaign speeches, are critical to the city’s future, former lieutenant governor and MTA chairman Richard Ravitch said today at a Fordham University infrastructure forum.

Richard Ravitch says the next mayor will have to get behind congestion pricing, whether it's an election topic or not. Image: Wikimedia

Ravitch said that while raising fares to cover the MTA’s operating expenses is acceptable, using fare hikes to cover debt service for infrastructure investment — which is already happening — is highly problematic. “That’s when it begins to hurt,” he told Streetsblog after his afternoon panel wrapped up. There needs to be a new source of revenue for the MTA’s capital program, and congestion pricing is necessary, Ravitch added.

The next mayor will need to make congestion pricing a top-tier priority and work with Albany to make it happen, Ravitch said. (The other top priorities he mentioned are dealing with union contracts and retiree health care costs.) But Ravitch isn’t hopeful that a productive discussion will break out during the mayoral campaign.

“They probably won’t be talking about what they should be talking about,” he said. “It’s hard to get elected on a platform of increasing taxes. The next mayor’s going to have to do that.”

With shrinking federal support for transportation, the burden of investment will fall to the local tax base. “The planning commission has done a great job in rezoning large parts of the city, particularly in the outer boroughs,” Ravitch said, but he wants to drastically ramp up outer-borough growth to help generate revenue. ”There is plenty of space; it’s a question of density and access,” he said.

But there’s one rezoning project that Ravitch remains skeptical of: East Midtown. “I’m personally not yet persuaded that that’s a good idea,” he said, saying that without major investment, the additional subway crowding and traffic congestion will be serious.

Although the city has proposed transit capacity improvements funded by new development, Ravitch is skeptical of geographically-targeted funding mechanisms, such as the 7 train extension, to address challenges that are regional in nature.

He is, however, bullish on the Tappan Zee Bridge’s chances to win a federal TIFIA loan. When Streetsblog asked how the multi-billion dollar loan will be repaid, given the Cuomo administration’s apparent lack of will to raise Thruway tolls, Ravitch said that TIFIA’s low interest rates are enough to keep repayment costs under control. ”They’re going to solve the Tappan Zee Bridge problem,” he said.

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Does Cuomo’s Budget Include Tappan Zee Subsidies?

Governor Cuomo’s state budget proposal includes hundreds of millions of dollars in discretionary spending for what one administration official has called “transformational projects.” It’s not clear what the loosely-defined pot of money will be used for, but so far the rhetoric indicates that Cuomo’s wide, transit-less, double-span Tappan Zee replacement bridge could be one recipient.

Cuomo's budget includes discretionary money for "transformational projects." Photo: @NYGovCuomo/Twitter

This morning, the New York Daily News reported that Cuomo’s budget includes a huge $3 billion bucket of discretionary spending for the governor, including “$720 million in new capital funding for ‘transformative’ projects over the next few years.”

The financing plan for the Tappan Zee Bridge has always been vague. The Thruway Authority has already borrowed $500 million to start paying for the $3.9 billion project, and the Cuomo administration is hoping to get billions more in low-interest financing from the federal TIFIA program. (New York faces stiff competition from 28 other projects all clamoring for a piece of the $7.5 billion in available assistance.) The amount that can be obtained from TIFIA is capped at 49 percent of the total project cost, so that leaves a significant gap to be filled.

The fear has always been that Cuomo will prop up the super-sized highway bridge with general fund dollars, especially since his administration has already caved on using tolls to cover the cost of roads. The pot of vaguely-defined discretionary funds in Cuomo’s budget could include general fund support for the Tappan Zee replacement.

Streetsblog reached out to the governor’s office for more information on how these discretionary funds will be spent, but has yet to receive a reply.

Elsewhere in this year’s budget, you can see evidence of road subsidies creeping upward to make up for Cuomo’s lack of determination to raise tolls: The budget includes an increase in state support for the Thruway Authority to cover costs that would have been covered by a truck toll hike, which the governor-appointed Thruway Authority board canceled in December.