RAIL ADVOCATES FIGHTING FOR TRANSIT ON NEW TZ BRIDGE

OP-ED BY VERONICA VANTERPOOL

Associate Director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign

Next week the state will hold two public hearings on the Tappan Zee Bridge project. After a decade’s worth of planning and meetings – why bother showing up for the reruns? The truth is that this is an entirely different show.

The state has recently radically altered the Tappan Zee project, scraping millions of dollars of study, public input and the original project goal of reducing congestion in the I-287 corridor. Now they propose spending $5.2 billion to build a new, wider, more expensive bridge that will do nothing to reduce traffic congestion or air pollution.

Despite public and state consensus that transit was essential to alleviate congestion in the I-287 corridor, the governor has taken it out of the plans, claiming this is necessary to expedite the project.

While it is heartening to see movement on this project, we question whether in this case haste is making waste. According to the state’s DOT Commissioner Joan McDonald including transit would add two years to the project’s timeline. But it seems commonsense that work could begin on the bridge and while transit is phased in. The state hopes to begin construction this year, something that could be delayed if they are relying on notoriously slow federal TIFIA loans to finance the project. Best-case scenarios have the bridge opening no earlier than 2017, time enough for a transit component to catch up.

The state has also said that we cannot afford to build transit. But, the state hasn’t shown how they can afford to build the bridge. They are exploring possibilities, including taking out a massive federal loan, but these possibilities are far from certain. No matter what they choose, tolls and taxes will likely be part of the financing equation. Early estimates indicate tolls may rise to as high as $16 to $30. At those prices transit becomes even more important, how else will people be able to afford to keep crossing the bridge?

The state has claimed a bus rapid transit system would add an additional $5 billion dollars to the project cost. This is in stark contrast to their earlier estimate of $1 billion. Even this cost seems oddly inflated. Bus rapid transit systems around the country have been implemented with a few hundred million dollars or less. Surely, creative minds at our state agencies can find innovative ways of doing the same.

The irony is the new bridge has space for transit. It will be twice as wide, with 4 lanes for traffic, a breakdown lane, and an emergency access lane.

Including transit in the Tappan Zee project is a smart investment. It will provide additional construction jobs, as well as operation and maintenance jobs down the road. It will also provide a spine for future growth and development in the region. Making transit part of the plans from the start ensures that the state is getting a bridge with the best value for the precious and limited taxpayer dollars that will ultimately be funding it.

Now is a crucial time for residents to speak up for transit and put an end to more decades of pollution and traffic congestion. The State is accepting written testimony on the project’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement at tzbsite@dot.state.ny.us until March 15, 2012. You can also write to your state and federal representatives and learn more by visiting www.brtonthebridge.org.