Friday, 28 September 2012 00:00
Some people haven’t gotten the memo. Residents of Rockland and Westchester Counties are still showing up at hearings and talking about adding mass transit to the replacement for the Governor Malcolm Wilson Tappan Zee Bridge. They talk about tying together the mess of a transportation system and more choices for commuters. Governor Cuomo has pushed his $5.2 billion bridge replacement plan through the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council so fast that it appears to have violated federally-mandated rules for public involvement, and the unrelenting parade of staged events and lukewarm endorsements is supposed to inform everyone that this all done. It’s the Governor’s way or the Thruway. Very soon, the first federal funding will be approved.
“It’s time to get something done,” said the Governor the other day, even if this once-in-two-lifetimes opportunity isn’t going to get done what so many public officials and residents say they need done. We still don’t really know how the whole thing is going to be paid for or how much it might cost to drive on it. We don’t know the implications of the largest dredging project ever attempted on the Hudson River.
I give Governor Cuomo points. There is a measure of relief to have some finality to a process that was thrown into turmoil when state engineers issued cost estimates larger than the Manhattan Project. In the past week, he has made assurances that some popular ideas will remain possibilities in the future, including bus lanes and pedestrian access. Certainly the new bridge is an aesthetic improvement over what was thrown together 60 years ago. But to an eerie degree, we are repeating the mistakes of 1950, when New York built a bridge that bogged down traffic on both sides of the river literally from the second they cut the ribbon.
Tappan Zee used to be called the most scenic spot in the Hudson Valley. The state originally planned a crossing there in 1936. The plan was dropped because the bedrock was too deep and engineering costs way too high.
In 1950, New York started building its Thruway to connect Buffalo with the downstate area. It was supposed to pass south through Rockland and link up with New Jersey highways, but suddenly it decided that it would extend across the river and Westchester to link up with a maze of highways in various stages of planning. Somehow everything was to lead to the Major Deegan Expressway, but there was no engineering. Routes ran right through village centers in some places and through empty “virgin land” in others.
Dobbs Ferry was a narrower and natural crossing point. For reasons never fully explained, Governor Dewey insisted that the Thruway cross central Westchester. There was a lot of maneuvering and a lot of dealing, none of it in public, but Governor Dewey got his way. Once the cement was on the ground, the pattern for development and congestion was set for 60 years and tens of millions of people.
Everything about the bridge caused controversy and conflict. Even the name. The Bar Association and several historical societies ran a public campaign to name the bridge after George Clinton, the state’s first governor. The Nyack village board got the Tarrytown Chamber of Commerce to endorse Nyack-Tarrytown Bridge. Two months after it opened for traffic amid historic tie-ups, Governor Harriman signed legislation naming it Tappan Zee Bridge.
Each new Thruway segment and interchange and connection point was supposed to fix the traffic snarls. The best they could ever do was move the bottlenecks around.
This new bridge at Tappan Zee is out of a long-past era that recognizes none of the challenges we face in this century, as if congestion and sprawl development, or an era of high gasoline prices were just science fiction stories. The current bridge was outdated in 1956. Adjusted to today’s money, we’re replacing a dysfunctional $685 million bridge with a dysfunctional $5.2 billion bridge.
There won’t be any do-overs. This is for keeps. No backs. How we pay for it and how we build it will set the pattern for decades of public works projects across the state. It’s got to at least make things better.
Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org