Monday, January 30, 2012

Tappan Zee traffic volume: Don't pee on my back again!

Yes, it's time for another episode in our "Don't pee on my back and tell me it's raining!" series about the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement project. Last month I addressed one of the New York State Department of Transportation's favorite claims, that the crash rate on the bridge is more than twice that on the rest of the Thruway, and that the only way to fix that is to build a new bridge. Today I'm going to address another claim that they love to make: that bridge traffic will increase over the next several years, and therefore a new bridge is necessary to accommodate that. I've already covered this back in October, but today I've got support from a famous economist, a team of financial experts and the State Transportation Commissioner herself.

Here's what the Federal Highway Administration says in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, copied directly from the Scoping Packet:

The New York Metropolitan Transportation Council (NYMTC) projects that both population and employment growth will continue in Rockland and Westchester Counties (see Figure 1-4). Between 2010 and 2047, the populations of Rockland and Westchester Counties are expected to increase by 50,000 and 134,000 residents, respectively. Employment is projected to increase by 47,000 jobs in Rockland County and by 160,000 jobs in Westchester County during this timeframe. This growth in population and employment will increase daily volumes across the Tappan Zee Bridge for the next thirty years.

This increase in traffic volumes is presented as a fact of nature, one that nobody can control, least of all the little ol' Federal Highway Administration and New York State Department of Transportation. But the State has the authority to set tolls, and in today's New York Times, economist Nancy Folbre, recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant," summarizes the well-supported case that toll prices can affect traffic volumes. And on Friday, libertarian columnist Nicole Gelinas struck gold in the 2009 Merrill Lynch / Loop Capital preliminary financial plan for the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement project:
Even a significant toll increase is unlikely to full fund the Project capital costs, and could pose potentially adverse traffic demand response. Toll increases require significant efforts to gain stakeholder support.
An "adverse traffic demand response" just means lower traffic volumes. Well, ahem, one man's "potentially adverse traffic demand response" is another man's problem solved! It's only a problem if you've already built a bigger bridge and you need the tolls to pay for it. If you reduce traffic volumes instead of building a bigger bridge, well, you just saved us five billion dollars.

But wait, there's more! Now let's connect these statements to the principle that roads compete with transit for people, and thus to New York State Transportation Commissioner Joan McDonald's statement last week:
Our position has always been you cannot build transit until you replace the bridge. We don’t think it is financially feasible at this time for transit to be included, but we are building a bridge that will last for 100+ years, so at some point in the future, if the ridership numbers, and the fare box recovery ratio warrant the investment, we will make sure that it happens.
This pretty much wraps up the case. The current plan is to widen the bridge, and probably to sneak a couple of extra car lanes in, making it easier for people to drive. The Thruway will always keep tolls low on the bridge, making it cheap for people to drive. In other words, the government of New York State will do everything it can to make sure that there is never enough demand to warrant setting aside bus-only lanes on the Tappan Zee Bridge.

The current Tappan Zee Bridge is a sprawl-generating machine. A replacement bridge with transit would not stop the sprawl. The replacement bridge will not have transit anyway, if Governor Cuomo has any say in the matter. Let's tear down the bridge and not build another one. But we'll be okay, and we can have jobs.

It's time to end this charade. To find out more, visit my new website,

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