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Re: Four Teams Short-Listed for $5-Billion Tappan Zee Bridge Rebuild
— by Ted Ted
By Judy Rife

Times Herald-Record

 Published: 2:00 AM - 10/07/12

Almost 365 days after Gov. Andrew Cuomo first announced he would fast-track the replacement of the Tappan Zee Bridge, the state is poised to select a contractor and start construction.

The Federal Highway Administration formally concluded the required environmental review on Sept. 25 and gave the state the green light to proceed with the estimated $5.2 billion project.

Already, an 11-person selection committee and 33 advisers, appointed on Sept. 19, have begun sifting through the 750 boxes that contain the three bids in Tarrytown.

What a difference a year makes

October 2011: Gov. Andrew Cuomo announces the New York State Thruway Authority will fast track replacement of the Tappan Zee Bridge. Public scoping sessions are held for a new environmental review.

November: Prospective bidders are interviewed and a new financial adviser is hired.

December: State lawmakers approve design-build legislation.

January 2012: The draft environmental impact statement is released.

February: Qualified bidders are identified and a letter of interest in a TIFIA loan is filed with the federal government.

February-March: Public hearings are held on the draft environmental impact statement.

March: A request for proposals is released to the four prequalified bidders.

July: Bids are received from three of the four bidders and reviewed for completeness and conformity.

August: The final environmental impact statement is released; the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council includes the project in the regional plan and a new letter of interest in a TIFIA loan is filed.

September: The Federal Highway Administration signs off on the environmental review and issues a record of decision. A selection committee and advisers are appointed and the vetted bids are transferred to them for a recommendation.
"After years of planning and re-planning, studying and re-studying, process upon process, meeting upon meeting, the project has been jump-started," said Jeff Zupan, senior fellow for transportation at the Regional Plan Association and a Rockland County resident. "Now it's moving ahead, and that's good."

The people still await answers

But Zupan and others who have followed process upon process since 1997, when then-Gov. George Pataki appointed a task force to address congestion in the Tappan Zee corridor, point out that the public is still waiting for answers to some basic questions:

How will the bridge be paid for, what will it look like, and when will transit return to the picture?

"I credit the governor's personal involvement for the remarkable speed at which the process has moved over the past year," said Scott Vanderhoef, the Rockland County Executive. "But there are still issues going forward, and they are principally driven by finances."

How will it be paid for?

The New York State Thruway Authority, in the final environmental impact statement filed on Aug. 1, described the financial plan in one sentence: "Funding for the project is reasonably available through toll revenue bonds and other potential sources."

"Other potential sources" have been reduced to one, a low-interest, long-term "TIFIA" loan from the U.S. Department of Transportation. The state, which wasn't successful in snaring one of the loans in February, is taking advantage of new TIFIA rules to ask for the new maximum — 49 percent of a project's cost — the second time around.

The authority is relatively confident — given the Obama administration's support for the TZB project and the consistent investment grade rating of its debt — of getting something, but until it knows how much, it can't predict what will happen to tolls on the bridge or the Thruway itself.

Cuomo, after suggesting tolls on the bridge would rise to $14 from $5, has backed away from specifics and tossed the sticky wicket to an advisory group.

At the same time, the Thruway Authority's plan to boost truck tolls 45 percent to pay for everything else for the next several years has stalled in the wake of widespread opposition.

"It's been a dispiriting 12 months for anybody whose job it is to figure out how to pay for the new bridge, when you look at the macro indicators of economic activity and transportation patterns and automobile use," said Charles Komanoff, a transportation policy analyst in New York City. "Traffic levels simply are not rebounding."

The authority, however, is prepared to use bond anticipation notes to fund the first phase of construction, to keep the project on the fast track and allow TIFIA awards and toll policies to evolve over time.

What will it look like?

The aesthetics of the new bridge have become another leap of faith for a public that has long anticipated having a hands-on role in fashioning its design.

Cuomo, however, realized the Thruway Authority couldn't fast-track TZB construction if it had to rely on the conventional design-bid-build approach, and pressed legislators in December for permission to trial design-build projects for three years.

As a result, the three consortiums vying for the bridge contract aren't just vying to build it; they're vying to design it, too.

"The new process, in some respects, shuts out the public until a design is selected. But we're hopeful we will get a bridge that serves as a majestic symbol of the river and the valley, that enhances rather than detracts from their scenic quality," said Hayley Carlock, an environmental advocacy attorney at Scenic Hudson.

Waddell Stillman, president of Historic Hudson Valley, agreed: "The new bridge should display the elegance of great engineering "» (with a design) that respects and befits the natural beauty and historic significance of the river it crosses."

The inclusion of representatives of Rockland and Westchester counties on the selection committee; and luminaries in art, architecture and engineering among the advisers is a sign that the state wants to get the design right — "right" being a subjective concept at best.

The design-build process, at any rate, doesn't wed the selection committee to the lowest bidder, but rather to the best value — and best value allows it to ask a bidder to tweak a design.

Transit's a big question

Gov. Cuomo, despite his insistence that the state can't afford both a new bridge and new transit services, agreed in August to appoint a transit task force to recommend short- and long-term options for bringing bus rapid transit or commuter rail to the corridor.

The task force was a quid pro quo to secure the votes of Vanderhoef and his Westchester and Putnam counterparts to amend the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council's regional plan to include the TZB project.

Without the unanimous vote, the Thruway Authority couldn't jump the remaining federal hurdles to reach the finish line.

Vanderhoef is optimistic that the as-yet-unappointed task force will be more than window-dressing, as construction of the new bridge proceeds and the financial picture becomes clearer.

"I still want to see some kind of a beginning to a BRT (bus rapid transit) system by the time the bridge opens," said Vanderhoef.

To Veronica Vanterpool, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, the task force is an unknown quantity in terms of its ultimate ability to effect change.

"But it is the best opportunity we have to return to the conversation that Pataki started about reducing congestion in the corridor," said Vanterpool. "Replacing the bridge became part of that conversation, and now it's the only conversation."