Monday, November 14, 2011

A real "no build" option for the Tappan Zee Bridge

By law, the environmental review for every major capital project has to include a "no build" alternative, so that the consequences of building the thing are seriously compared to the consequences of not building it. Sometimes the no-build option wins out, as with Westway and the state's plans to widen the Major Deegan Expressway in 2009. Most of the time, unsurprisingly, the no-build option is a sham to satisfy the formal requirements. Some of those times, though, the projections for the no-build scenario are so divorced from reality that it borders on fraud.

The no build alternative advanced to satisfy the requirements for the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement is really not an alternative at all. "The No Build Alternative would involve the continued operation of the existing seven-lane bridge with ongoing maintenance to keep the bridge in a state of good repair," says the Scoping Packet. It envisions the state raising tolls and taxes to maintain an increasingly deteriorating bridge, while new residents pour into Rockland. These residents would be sitting in traffic for hours each day, with traffic backed up to Coxsackie and forlorn employers in Westchester staring at thousands of empty cubicles.

As I've written before, these projections are bullshit. It's already a pain in the ass to drive across the bridge, and people have responded by taking jobs in the city or by simply not moving to Rockland, Orange and Bergen. Employers have responded by hiring people who live east of the river, or by relocating to the city.

This is true for bridge maintenance as well. Just because maintenance costs rise doesn't mean we have to pay them. We could dramatically reduce maintenance - and crashes - by simply reducing the number of lanes on the bridge. If only half as many vehicles took the bridge, it would dramatically reduce the stress. They're doing it on a bridge in Montreal, and it's a boon for transit. It's even got some people talking about BRT on that bridge - without replacing it!

I may not have been clear enough in my earlier post, but just as failing to expand the bridge will not result in huge traffic jams, unemployed Rocklanders and empty cubicles in Westchester, neither will reducing the number of cars that can use the bridge. If only half as many people can get across the bridge, then people will compensate by making adjustments to their homes, their jobs and their transportation.

The grinding traffic jams on the bridge are there not because it's such a wonderful way to get to work, but because it's underpriced. As Eric Jaffe writes, the only way to get rid of them is to charge market rate tolls. Before you protest about gouging the poor Rockland residents, let me remind you that almost all of them moved there because they could get the suburban life for cheap. It's cheap because we're subsidizing their driving, but nobody ever promised them it would be cheap forever, did they? Oh, and the State plans to double or triple the tolls even if they replace the bridge, so you should be just as mad about that.

The great thing is that as tolls go up, maintenance costs go down and the money available to pay them go up. There is likely to be a point at which the tolls cover maintenance again and other Thruway users no longer have to chip in. On the other hand, it's possible that the particular structure of this bridge is hopeless, and there is no toll level that would attract enough drivers to cover the cost. In that case, we can simply have an orderly devolution of the bridge, where we raise tolls enough to keep the bridge going for five or ten years more, and to build up capacity on the four railroad lines that serve the area.

The past ten years' discussion of Tappan Zee Bridge replacement has been full of this kind of dishonesty. Wouldn't it be nice if the discussion could be honest from now on? An honest discussion would consider the possibility that the best option might actually be to tear the bridge down and build nothing in its place, or to turn it into a greenway without building a new bridge. Instead, the three goals listed on Page 1-7 of the Scoping Packet are,

Ensure the long-term vitality of this Hudson River crossing
Improve transportation operations and safety on the crossing
Maximize the public investment in a new Hudson River crossing

These are goals for "the crossing," not for the people. They admit no solution that doesn't involve spending lots of money on "the crossing."

Tomorrow, November 15, at 5:00 PM is the deadline for commenting on the scope of the environmental review. If you think that the scope of this project is too narrow, and that the "no build" option is bogus, you need to make your opinion known. You can email them, or you can call them at (877) 892-3685. Anything you send them, they have to respond to it and they have to include it in a report.

The future of the Hudson Valley, and the future fiscal health of the State of New York, depend on us stopping this boondoggle. Please act.


Jonathan said...

I called; thank you for the reminder.

Rob B. said...

Great piece.

Adirondacker12800 said...

The no build options for the Tappan Zee costs more than the rebuild option. The "don't spend any money and let it fall into the river" option isn't a viable one.

Cap'n Transit said...

Adirondacker, spare me the "not viable" comments unless you back them up. As I've gone to great lengths to show, the replacement and rehabilitation options are even less viable.

Adirondacker12800 said...

The causeways leading up to the trusses in the middle of the river are sitting on wooden pilings. They need to be replaced. If they are not replaced, they rot away and the causesways fall into the river. Rehabilitating them in place would cost more than building a new bridge. Building a new bridge means they can avoid all the compromises made due to shortages during the Korean War... like putting the causeways on wooden pilings..
It's used as a bypass of New York City. Close the Tappan Zee and that traffic shifts somewhere. Mostly to the George Washington Bridge and the Cross Bronx. Shifting that traffic to the GW and the Cross Bronx is not a viable option. Unless you want to ban cars.

Cap'n Transit said...

Adirondacker, the bridge is not indispensable. But beyond that, the principle of induced demand is one of the foundations of this blog. If you're going to deny it, we don't have much to talk about.

Adirondacker12800 said...

It's indispensable. If 78 percent of the traffic is local that means 22 percent of it isn't. Shift half of that 22 percent onto the George Washington Bridge and traffic backs up to Port Chester. Since the GW would become a nightmare some of the traffic would move off to the Lincoln Tunnel. Making the Lincoln Tunnel a PITA means some of the traffic moves to the Holland. Manhattan becomes one big happy gridlock. Manhattan becoming
one big happy gridlock is one of the incentives to build the Cross Harbor Tunnel.

Cap'n Transit said...

Adirondacker, did you read the page I linked to about induced demand?