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As Obama Lauds NY Bridge Project, Lawmakers Worry About Tolls

WAMC, Allison Dunne

When President Obama visited Westchester Wednesday to spotlight the replacement Tappan Zee Bridge, he talked about how the project benefitted from an expedited review process. He also mentioned a large federal loan that came through. But some state and local lawmakers says there is still a big unknown: the toll price.

The Tappan Zee Bridge replacement project got a big financial boost when the U.S. Department of Transportation in the late fall approved a $1.6 billion loan to help finance the bridge’s construction. But the total cost of the bridge, which is expected to be completed in 2018, is estimated to be $3.9 billion. That leaves $2.3 billion. Brian Conybeare is special advisor to Governor Andrew Cuomo for the New NY Bridge project.

“We’ll use the combination of that $1.6 billion loan from the U.S. DOT as well as Thruway Authority bonds,” says Conybeare. “The Thruway Authority can go to Wall Street and sell bonds - they do it on a regular basis - and those will be the main financing mechanisms for the bridge.”

And how will that dictate what the tolls will end up being because obviously that’s a big concern?

“Absolutely it’s a big concern,” says Conybeare. “And we are going to have a toll financing task force that the governor has requested to help us determine the exact toll structure. We do not know what the final toll number will be, but that group is going to help us determine that. And they’ll also look at the possibility of resident discounts for those who live in Westchester and Rockland County.”

Republican Rockland County Executive Ed Day, who attended the president’s speech in Tarrytown on infrastructure investment, wants to see financial help beyond loans.

“I’m hopeful that the president will use the power and authority of his office to convince the Congress of both parties to end up giving us not loans, but funding for this bridge,” says Day. “It frustrates me as a citizen, as an elected representative that we have funded bridges to nowhere with taxpayer dollars and we can’t get a, we can’t get a penny of direct funding. So loans in my mind do not make it.”

Credit WAMC, Allison Dunne
Rockland County Executive Ed Day

And he points out that any talk of a $15 toll is unacceptable, saying a high toll could keep Westchester residents at malls on their side of the river, rather than heading to a major Rockland shopping destination – the Palisades Center mall.

“And let’s make sure this bridge is affordable because if people of Westchester, my perspective, if people of Westchester come to the Palisades Center, which is 25 percent of our sales-tax revenue, if they turn around and say, you know something, 15 bucks is too much, and they head south to Ridge Hill, they have an option to go someplace else,” says Day. “And that’s where we get hurt economically, not to mention commerce, trucks, all these vehicles will be paying much, much more than $15. So it’s a significant impact upon Rockland County at a time when we’re trying to get, we’re trying to get our economy up and running again.”

Democratic Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffa, whose Rockland district includes Tappan Zee Bridge communities, would also like to see additional funding from the federal government.

“And we’re hopeful that perhaps if legislation, this transportation legislation, can move forward with additional funding, we can also have access to that additional funding,” says Jaffee. “There is no question that additional tolls are unacceptable. It impacts our communities, impacts residents, and we have to find a way to be able to assure that additional expenses are not put on their backs.”

She says that’s why it’s important for Congress to move forward with a transportation bill and ensure the Highway Trust Fund is not depleted by the summer.

Credit WAMC, Allison Dunne
NYS Senator David Carlucci

State Senator David Carlucci, an Independent Democrat whose district includes the Rockland side of the bridge, says lawmakers need to consider alternative ways to keep toll prices down.

“And that’s why I’ve been working on my toll evader legislation, to be able to capture that money that’s really going out the window,” says Carlucci. “I mean, today, as President Obama stands in front of this bridge, we’re going to lose $5,000 in unpaid tolls just on the Tappan Zee Bridge, $82,000 statewide that’s being lost because we’re not able to crack down on chronic toll evaders.”

Carlucci says there are no assembly sponsors, but he is speaking with members about it.

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