BY JANIE ROSMAN
New York State’s Tappan Zee project got a financial boost Wednesday afternoon when three voting members of the Public Authorities Control Board said ‘yes’ to its request for half of the $511 million originally intended for statewide clean water projects like sewage treatment.
Within less than 45 minutes, Budget Director Bob Megna, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (who will vote yes), and Senator John DeFrancisco (R-Syracuse) unanimously agreed; however, DeFrancisco did so with reservation.
“I’m concerned about whether the (Clean Water) Fund is being used for its intended purposes,” he said. “These are present-day requirements, and the money has to come from some place. The hardest part of the whole vote is that (we) need a financing packet and a full plan.”
On the other hand, the $3.3 billion New York State is set to receive from a recent record settlement with France’s largest bank will be added to its general fund. Megna said he’ll “move as hard as he can to get the money moved to infrastructure like the Tappan Zee Bridge.”
Of concern, too, was toll and financing group discussed in 2012, and that has yet to be up and running. “If we don’t have a complete (financial) picture, I will have a hard time voting for this,” DeFrancisco said.
And then he voted yes.
After explaining about the project’s revenue increase, spend out during the next five years, and citing the toll and task force’s examination of other revenue sources, including a potential commuter discount, Thruway Authority Executive Director Thomas Madison probably breathed a sigh of relief.
Pleased that the first installment of $255.725 million was approved at an interest rate of 0 percent for up to five years, he said the Thruway Authority will continue to secure the second equal amount at an interest rate not to exceed 4 percent for the same term.
“All the environmental mitigation measures on the project will continue to be implemented as planned,” Madison said. He reiterated the Authority’s commitment “to an unprecedented level of environmental stewardship on the New NY Bridge project, and also to keeping tolls on the new spans as low as possible,” aided by the loan approval.
Assemblyman Tom Abinanti (92nd AD) — who represents the eastern shore of the Hudson River extending north and south of the Tappan Zee Bridge — said the Thruway Authority accused him of favoring higher tolls because he doesn’t believe the $511 should come from the Clean Water Fund.
“How do we know the loan will reduce tolls, since we have to pay it back eventually?” he asked. “The Cuomo administration did a very good job of achieving the $3.3 windfall,” Abinanti said. “We should use one-third for the Tappan Zee Bridge, which is important for the state, one-third for environmental projects, and one-third for infrastructure.”
He asked if Westchester County got a zero interest rate loan on its $230 million bond when it tapped into the Clean Water Fund years ago.
“Rates obtained through the state’s Environmental Facilities Corporation are subsidized (lower) than other rates,” Westchester County Budget Director Larry Soule explained.
After the vote, Abinanti responded, “The Thruway Authority irresponsibly spent $250 million they didn’t have. The Thruway Authority forced legislative leadership to either borrow clean water funds or let Authority checks bounce.”
Hudson Riverkeeper President Paul Gallay said, “This unprecedented alliance for good governance warned Senate and Assembly power brokers: ‘This is a bad business. Don’t go along with it.’ But, they did just that, with barely a whisper of protest.
Calling it a behind-the-curtain deal voted on by PACB, he said “it’s still just as damaging to the clean water act loan program and it still denies the public their legally-mandated say about the loan.”
And, he said, “Now, only EPA or the courts can stop the EFC and the Thruway Authority from paying for a quarter of a billion in bridge construction work with funds they were given to fix sewage treatment plants and implement river restoration plans.”
“The process has failed the public—we still do not have a financial plan for how they will pay for this bridge, and we have been completely denied a voice in the decision,” Tri-State Transportation Campaign Albany Legislative Advocate said. “This is our bridge. It will be our tolls and our tax dollars and today, we were told our opinion does not count.”