Saturday, December 10, 2011

Why we can't afford to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge

Last week, Governor Cuomo went on Fred Dicker's radio show complaining about "the lack of initiative and ability to execute by state government." because people were telling him we can't afford to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge. He said, "We used to build bridges! ... I believe we can! I believe it doesn't have to be this way! I'm not giving up on us!"

Well I'm not giving up on us either! *sob* I'm okay, just let me compose myself... Right.

The Governor talks about "alternative financing," but what matters much more than where you're going to borrow the money from is how you're going to pay it back. The fact of the matter is that if we confine ourselves to using toll revenues, and keeping the tolls to no more than double the current tolls plus inflation, we will never be able to pay back $5.2 billion dollars. It's a mathematical impossibility. The money has to come from somewhere else. The Federal government? State taxpayers? Justin Bieber's personal fortune? Mugging old ladies on the street? It's anybody's guess, but it won't come from tolls unless we raise the tolls above twenty dollars round-trip.

Why can't we finance it with tolls? Now, Alan Chartock is fond of saying that Andrew Cuomo is a very smart guy, and it's true that the issue is not that obvious. But I have an answer for Cuomo. I know the reason we can't afford to build this bridge. It's not related to the economy or austerity or anything. It's a combination of three factors: the river is too wide, the bridge is too wide, and the cars are too empty.

Many people have observed that the Tappan Zee is the worst part of the river to build a bridge. There are some places, like the George Washington Bridge, where the river is relatively narrow and the bedrock relatively close to the surface. You drive some piles into the rock and hang a bridge off them. Expensive but doable. Even then, it's going to cost a billion dollars just to replace the suspender ropes.

The Tappan Zee Bridge is built on mud at the widest point in the river. That's just going to cost a lot more. The original bridge was built on the cheap during the Korean War, which is why maintenance costs so much today.

Secondly, remember that the new bridge is planned to be twice as wide as the old one, but with only a slightly higher number of cars crossing it. That's going to add to the expense as well.

Finally, most of the vehicles crossing the bridge are single-occupant. If they had two or three people in them on average, those people could get together and pool their money for the toll, and it wouldn't be too much for anyone. But if it's just one person, then that person is going to get very angry if tolls go above a certain level. The bridge can only fit so many cars, which means only so many people.

Cuomo isn't just a smart guy, he's a smart guy who signs the paychecks of lots of knowledgeable people with direct involvement with this project. The only way he doesn't know this is if those people are all too scared to say something the Governor doesn't like. On some level I'm guessing he does know this, which means that he's looking to pay for the project with something other than toll revenue. The fact that he's never mentioned that, despite spending hours talking about financing, suggests that whatever he's looking at, people aren't going to like it.

2 comments:

Adirondacker12800 said...

the river is too wide, the bridge is too wide, and the cars are too empty.

And the construction costs are too high. Build it at European construction costs and the toll has to be 10-ish, which people who use Port Authority crossings pay.... Build it at European costs and ESA is 3 billion. Or ARC is 4 billion. Full build out of the Second Ave Subway is 8 Billion....

Ian Mitchell said...

What makes NY construction costs so high?