Book Examines Political Processes behind both Tappan Zee Bridge Projects

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Philip Mark Plotch
Philip Mark Plotch

Saint Peter’s University professor Philip Mark Plotch didn’t plan to write a book when he worked at the MTA and LMDC.

“I was working on a lot of big projects and felt frustrated when I didn’t know what was going on,” he told a packed room at Nyack Library last week. “Turns out after I started this book I discovered nobody really knows what’s going on.”

“Politics Across The Hudson: The Tappan Zee Megaproject” was his dissertation after receiving a Ph.D., a research project, Plotch said. “The question I wanted to answer in 2011 was, Why is the state studying what to do on the I-287 corridor year after year after year?”

His 90-minute presentation started with a discussion of how the railroads along the Hudson, Saw Mill and Bronx Rivers, and the Long Island Sound spurred the area’s development.

“I began my research when I was pursuing my Ph.D.,” Plotch said. “The question I wanted to answer in 2011 was, ‘Why is the state continuing to study what to do on the I-287 corridor, year after year, decade after decade?’”

The audience laughed when he likened the communications disparity to the game of telephone, where one person passes information, and passes information, and then it gets to the governor. “By the time it gets to the people who live in South Nyack, you don’t get the whole story,” he said. “There’s a huge amount of distortion about what’s delivered and what’s not delivered. Nobody knows exactly the truth.”

As a former state official, he had access to insider information and interviewed close to 125 people — including three former governors, Rockland County Executive Scott Vanderhoef, moles in the governor’s office, county executives, local people (among them former Nyack mayor Terry Hekker), and officials from Metro-North, the state Department of Transportation, and the Thruway Authority.

Underbelly of the bridge
Underbelly of the bridge

Plotch pieced his research into a fascinating story that ends with Governor Andrew Cuomo celebrating the federal approval to begin construction on the new bridge.

“You have to talk to that many people for a project this big to understand what happened,” he said. “Everybody told me, ‘The bridge is crumbling, the bridge is falling down, we have to replace the bridge. After speaking with a former chief engineer for the New York State Department of Transportation, who was responsible for monitoring and rating all the state’s bridges, Plotch said he learned otherwise.

“We didn’t have to replace the bridge, if we kept replacing parts that needed replacing and took care of it,” the engineer said.

The strategies employed when Governor Thomas E. Dewey wanted to build the Thruway without stoplights, crossings or steep grades in the 1940s is similar to the way that Cuomo approached replacing the bridge, he said. Since Dewey didn’t want to share the toll revenue with New Jersey, he built the bridge outside the Port Authority’s 25-mile jurisdiction which starts at the Statue of Liberty.

“If the bridge wasn’t curved, then it would have hit the 25-mile line,” he said. “It’s in perhaps the worst location, where the river is more than three miles wide and the foundations of the bridge could not reach bedrock.”

Initially they were unable to figure out the new Thruway’s exact route or which properties the state would need — or did they know and not tell?

“If they did (tell), then there would have been a lot of people upset along the entire route.” Plotch said. Dewey kept the information hidden as long as he could and waited until he knew the specific properties needed for each section before announcing the Thruway’s path.

To help sell the original bridge project, the Thruway Authority hired an Associated Press reporter for public relations. “I thought it was funny and very clever when Governor Cuomo hired Brian Conybeare, because it was the same effective strategy,” Plotch said.

“One of the points of my talk was that in order to get things done, Cuomo had to minimize transparency, public participation and eliminate an overly expensive public transportation component. Dewey did the same thing,” he explained.

At community meetings people were told the New NY Bridge project would create 45,000 new jobs, many in construction.

“That was never a real number for construction jobs,” Plotch said. “The January 2012 Environmental Impact Statement revealed that construction would require only about 2,800 workers per year as well as 2,150 indirect and induced jobs in the state.”

Some feel the state withholds information despite claims of transparency. During a sound barrier meeting three years ago one irate resident asked why it couldn’t build a straight bridge between Rockland and Westchester counties. Robert Conway, Senior Vice President, AKRF Environmental, Planning and Engineering Consultants, replied, “It has to do with boundaries,” without mentioning the 25-mile radius.

“That’s really interesting to me,” Plotch said. “Because that’s exactly the same way the Thruway Authority dealt with the issue in the early 1950s. They didn’t say what the boundary issue was, either.”

”A few months before their terms expired, Lieutenant Governor Richard Ravitch and former MTA chairman told Paterson, “The time to address the Tappan Zee Bridge is imminent,” Plotch wrote.

Ravitch explained that Hudson River cleanup programs had been so effective that marine organisms were now able to thrive in the river and eat the wooden pilings on the bridge’s causeway. Paterson replied with a big smile, “Well, we’ll either have to solve the bridge problem or re-pollute the water.”

Paterson enjoyed his quip so much that he told Ravitch, “We’re going to have to put this in a book one day.”

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