Showing posts with label tappan zee. Show all posts
Showing posts with label tappan zee. Show all posts

Friday, January 18, 2013

We don't want a Frackin' Zee Bridge

Environmental advocates are doing a great job educating people on how horrible hydraulic fracturing is - in particular, it means hundreds more big, dangerous trucks on the roads - and building an ever-growing movement against this technique for extracting natural gas.


Unfortunately, current projections are for our energy use to grow, not shrink. Many fracking opponents also want the government to shut down nuclear power plants like Indian Point, which will further increase the unmet demand for energy. And many environmentalists support converting to vehicles powered by electricity and natural gas. Where will those come from?

Some of this demand can be satisfied through less destructive, renewable sources like wind and solar, but not enough. As long as the demand increases there will be pressure to frack, and we will not necessarily be able to resist forever. To really head off hydrofracking we need to reduce our demand for energy.

We can do some of this by switching to more efficient forms of electricity generation, lighting, heating and cooling, but those measures only go so far. We need to tackle one of the top areas of energy inefficiency: transportation. If people keep driving at anywhere near the rate they're doing now, in a few years most of that fracking gas is going to go right into the power sockets of our electric cars.

We could make a huge dent in our energy use if we shifted most of our freight and passenger trips from cars and trucks to trains, buses and boats. We can cut it even more by shifting those trips to walking, bicycles and elevators. To make the most of it, with convenient walks and transit trips, people would need to move their homes, jobs and stores to within walking distance of train stations.

It's at this point that someone usually brings in a Joel Kotkin-type argument about people really wanting to live in the suburbs or the country and avail themselves of "the freedom of a car." It's nonsense, of course. People also want to live in town with the freedom of walking. People want all kinds of impossible and incompatible things.

People respond to economic incentives. If you build lots of free or low-cost highways and parking and fight massive wars to keep the price of gas low, then people will drive. If you let people deduct part of their housing costs from their taxes, then big houses on big lots out in the suburbs or the country look great. If you make streets big and sidewalks narrow or nonexistent, people won't walk. If you limit the size and number of apartment buildings and require lots of parking to be provided for every home, business and transit station, people aren't going to build walkable communities, and the walkable communities that exist will be expensive. More driving, more fracking.

Now, as gas gets more expensive for people and roads get more expensive for governments, people are cutting back on their driving. Driving has been declining for the past few years. If it keeps declining, we may well see an easing of this pressure to frack.

One of the biggest incentives to drive is wide, low-cost highways. Since it was opened in 1955, the Tappan Zee Bridge has been an incentive to live far from transit and drive everywhere. Governor Cuomo is planning to widen the Tappan Zee Bridge, but he has pledged to keep the tolls low, increasing that incentive to drive. More driving, more fracking.

If you really care about hydrofracking, you won't just tell Cuomo to stop the fracking. You'll tell him to stop the Frackin' Zee Bridge.

Monday, October 22, 2012

With TIFIA, a loss for "New York" would be a gain for transit

Newsday reported that the competition for TIFIA loans is "stiff." It was presented as a challenge for New York: will another state beat us out to get the money? But if we look beyond the simplistic rhetoric and shoulder through some boring financial details, we can see that a "gain for New York" would actually be a loss for transit. In fact, it would be a loss for New York, and a loss even for Rockland and Westchester counties.

Okay, first of all, what is a TIFIA loan? TIFIA is a law, the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act of 1998, that set up a program where the federal government offers loans to states and transportation agencies, which are then used to build new roads, rail lines, stations and other big capital projects. Getting a loan from the Treasury instead of selling bonds or borrowing from a private bank can save agencies millions of dollars, because they can get a better interest rate or extend the loan for a longer period.

Earlier this year, Congress put a billion dollars into the TIFIA fund for the next two years, and the Federal Highway Administration will decide who gets the loans. So far they've received nineteen applications, totaling $27 billion, so not everyone can get a loan. The New York State Thruway Authority has put in an application for almost six billion dollars, to build a replacement for the Tappan Zee Bridge. Newsday is clearly expecting everyone in the greater New York area to cheer on the Tappan Zee loan.


Here's where it gets interesting: the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority has also applied for a TIFIA loan, for almost the same amount ($5.999 billion instead of $5.900 billion). But their loan wouldn't fund a highway bridge, it would fund a new subway line from downtown Washington through the northern Virginia suburbs to Dulles Airport.

On the surface, the choice is clear for transit advocates. The Tappan Zee Bridge project would take a huge, sprawl-generating highway and double it, possibly with a dedicated bus lane, probably without. The new bridge will make it easier to drive for a few more years, draining the life out of the small but growing movements to rebuild Rockland and Westchester's sustainable infrastructure of compact towns connected by train lines. This inefficiency will in turn waste more local tax money and fuel, increasing demand for hydrofracking and other destructive energy extraction methods.

At the state budget level, the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement project will suck up all of the toll money that the state can manage to get out of drivers (while the elected officials from the areas with the most bridge commuters fight to keep the tolls as low as possible). At best, that means that taxpayers statewide will be forced to pay for Thruway improvements that are currently funded out of bridge tolls. More likely, general state funds will be used to pay for various bridge-related expenses, diverting money away from other state expenses, particularly transit.

In contrast, the Silver Line metro project would bring rapid transit to a part of Virginia that has long been dominated by cars. Fairfax and Loudoun counties have made it the centerpiece of their smart growth plans, in particular a project to transform the town of Tysons Corner from a land of detached houses, strip malls and office parks into an urban area with dense, walkable centers. It would ultimately be paid for by motorists on the competing Dulles Toll Road, simultaneously providing a disincentive for driving and an incentive for taking the train.

Now, WAMU is spinning the TIFIA loan as a way to keep tolls on the Dulles Road low, but it's better to have low tolls and a completed train than a toll revolt and no Phase 2.

This is a case where what is good for "New York" is not only bad for Northern Virginia, but bad for transit everywhere, and in fact for the people of New York. New Yorkers should contact the FHWA and tell them to give the cheap loan to the Silver Line train.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Greenwashing with recreation

I got pretty annoyed this weekend listening to Lieutenant Governor Duffy blathering on to Alan Chartock about how Governor Cuomo loves the environment so much, he would never approve hydrofracking if he thought it would harm the environment at all! How do we know Cuomo loves the environment so much? Because he just loves spending time outdoors in the woods!

I was composing a thousand word blog post in my mind about greenwashing through recreation, when Stephen Miller announced a caption contest with a photo of Cuomo canoeing on some pristine Adirondack body of water. So here is a picture that tells the whole story:


I would credit the photographer, but the Governor's Flickr stream doesn't say who it is. Very nice shot, though.

Please feel free to retweet my contest entry tweet. Also, please share this picture on Facebook! As a pseudonymous fictional entity, your Cap'n is not allowed on Facebook, so please be my minions!

You can find out why the Tappan Zee Bridge is a cancer in our midst at www.thetappanzeebridgeisacancerinourmidst.com, or by browsing my Tappan Zee-related posts.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Tappan Zee Bridge is NOT structurally deficient

If you haven't guessed, I'm kind of sick of writing about the Tappan Zee Bridge at this point. But I'm jumping back into the fray because there are some issues that need correcting. I asked nicely on Twitter, but people don't seem to have picked up on it, so I want to go into detail.

If you follow the official "Build the Bridge Now" Twitter feed (kind of boring, because much of it is the same seven or eight tweets over and over again), you'll be treated to a number of dishonest claims that are commonly repeated by highway departments all around the country. They're big deals, and someone should really talk about them, but they're not big deals for this project, because everybody does it. They're also possible to weasel out of because they're technically true, but missing some critical bit of information. Here I'm talking about claims that the bridge carries more than it was designed for (the State let those cars on), that the lanes are too narrow (the State narrowed them in 1990) and that it will create thousands of jobs (there are plenty of ways to put thousands of people to work).


There's a more serious claim being made, one that is demonstrably untrue. That is that the Tappan Zee Bridge is structurally deficient. "Structurally deficient" is a big claim. It means that there is something wrong with the structure of the bridge that makes it more likely to collapse suddenly and dump a bunch of cars into the river. It is distinct from "fracture critical," which means that one failure can make the whole bridge collapse. It is also different from seismically unfit, which means that an earthquake could do more damage to the bridge than the engineers are comfortable with. Finally, it is not the same as "functionally obsolete," which is just a fancy way of saying that a bridge doesn't carry as many cars as the engineers want it to.

The Tappan Zee Bridge is fracture-critical, seismically unfit and functionally obsolete, but it is not structurally deficient. The difference is important, because "fracture critical" and seismically unfit talk about what could happen if there is an earthquake or a fracture. "Structurally deficient" talks about how likely a fracture is. "Functionally obsolete" just talks about how many cars can fit on the bridge. Don't get confused like Andrea Bernstein did.

When the "structurally deficient" claim is just coming from the "Build the Bridge" Twitter feed, or Car and Driver Magazine, you can kind of dismiss it as basic partisan hackery. But lately, this claim has been repeated by ostensibly neutral news sources like the New York Post (yeah, I know, but it has also posted some good critiques by Nicole Gelinas) and CBS News.

I was most disturbed to hear it show up on a program that I actually listen to for my own interest, National Public Radio's Science Friday. I was kind of grumbling as I listened to their segment on Time To Overhaul America's Aging Bridges? and thinking that they really should have had Strong Towns' Chuck Marohn on. And then host Ira Flatow asked, "What is the worst bridge in America?"

Flatow's guest, Barry LePatner, replied, "You talked about the Tappan Zee Bridge. It is a bridge that carries 140,000 vehicles a day. New York state - the New York Thruway Authority, which manages that bridge, pays $100 million a year to keep it afloat. It is structurally deficient. It is fracture-critical just like the I-35W. And while they're planning to build a new bridge nearby, it's still going to take many years. The risk to every driver who goes over there every day is tangible." And it turns out that all of these stories - Science Friday, "Build the Bridge," Car and Driver, the Post and CBS News - all get the claim from LePatner.

The Tappan Zee Bridge is simply not structurally deficient. Here is the 2011 National Bridge Inventory report for the Tappan Zee Bridge; you will see that under "STATUS" it is listed as "Functionally Obsolete." That is not the same as "Structurally Deficient."

If you don't believe "nationalbridges.com", you can see that it is not on this list of structurally deficient bridges in Rockland County from the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics. If you look at the list of Rockland County bridges on this PDF from the New York State Department of Transportation, you'll see that it is listed as "Functionally Obsolete," not "structurally deficient."

Now, this is the 2011 National Bridge Inventory, and LePatner's website and book are based on the 2009 database. Maybe the bridge was listed as structurally deficient in 2009, but taken off the list in 2011? Unfortunately, the only copy of the 2009 database I can find is in a pretty hard-to-read form, but it seems to me to be saying that in 2009 the bridge was rated as neither structurally deficient nor functionally obsolete.

In any case, in general the database is not the most reliable. And it's certainly not a suitable basis for any kind of coherent infrastructure policy. As I wrote a year and a half ago, not all infrastructure is worth replacing.

Of course, it is a suitable basis for building the career of Barry LePatner, construction lawyer, and there's nothing really wrong with that. We just have to consider the source, and I think Flatow could have shown a lot more skepticism.

But why did LePatner say last week that the Tappan Zee Bridge was structurally deficient? If the bridge was listed in 2009, I could see why he would have put it in his book. And I can understand that a lot of work went into his book and map, and he doesn't have the resources to update it for the new database.

Still, this is LePatner's major case, and he's been in four major news outlets this summer, specifically focusing on the Tappan Zee Bridge. Surely he knows that there's a new National Bridge Inventory - didn't he check to see the Tappan Zee Bridge's status before repeating this claim? Maybe not - if it was on the structurally deficient list, have they done enough work to take it off? Could somebody be paying him to spread this claim? Maybe, but I think the promise of future business for his firm is enough explanation.

Intentionally or not, LePatner is spreading misinformation. I hope that all the news outlets involved - Science Friday, CBS News, the Post, Car and Driver and even the PR flunkies who manage the "Build the Bridge" Twitter feed - check the facts. Don't listen to me; I'm just some anonymous blogger! Go to the source, and then publish your corrections.

To balance out that entirely too credulous "OMG! Bridges collapsing!" segment, I hope that Science Friday will run a more skeptical discussion in the future. Obviously no segment on infrastructure policy is complete without Strong Towns' Chuck Marohn, renegade civil engineer. "Engineer Scotty" Johnson in Portland is fighting his own Tappan Zee boondoggle, the Columbia River Crossing. Alon Levy, mathematician by training, has attracted a following with his incisive comments on transportation infrastructure. If Flatow really wants to go for entertainment value, he could bring on Jim Kunstler who will tell the audience that all the bridges will collapse within the next hundred years. Kunstler's former podcast host Duncan Crary has been doing interesting collaborations with the crew of an Erie Canal freight tugboat.

I emailed Science Friday last Thursday asking for a correction, but I have not gotten a response yet. You can contact them at scifri@sciencefriday.com. In the meantime, please spread the word on your own blogs, Twitter, Facebook, chapbooks, town criers, semaphore, whatever it takes.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Escaping the Tappan Zee bridge toll death spiral

In January, Charlie Komanoff warned of a "Tappan Zee Death Spiral," similar to what happened to passenger rail in the middle of the twentieth century. Without taxpayer money, Charlie doesn't see a way to pay for a $5 billion bridge that doesn't involve tolls at least as high as $9 and more likely $16.

Charlie is not the first person to note this paradox. As a Merrill Lynch-led consulting team reported to the State in 2009, with any toll increase, some drivers will choose to take transit to work instead, or to work somewhere else, or both. If the tolls go over $13, Charlie predicts that so many people will avoid driving over the bridge that total revenue will not be enough to pay for bridge maintenance plus loan repayments. If the State raises the tolls again to cover those payments, that will drive more people away, which will bring total revenues down further, until the state is forced to default on its loans.


As I've written before, in any rational universe you actually want people to work closer to home and take transit more. You definitely don't want to put the state in the position of being more dependent on ever-increasing volumes of car traffic to make these payments. That's like getting your family addicted to cocaine so that you can support your own habit by dealing to them. Talk about a death spiral.

Nicole Gelinas at the Post echoes a point I made last year: that not only are the State's traffic projections bullshit, but we will probably see a decline in car volumes independent of the bridge toll levels, especially if the price of gas continues to rise.

So what would be a rational solution? Both Gelinas and Ben Fried at Streetsblog seem to be inching towards the one that I proposed back in November. What if we doubled the tolls and didn't build a bridge? Here's what seems likely:
  1. Car traffic would go down. Charlie Komanoff's spreadsheet suggests that if we double tolls, we'll see a 30% reduction in car volumes.
  2. Maintenance costs would go down. I haven't been able to find a breakdown, but three of the biggest maintenance cost items are wear and tear from the sheer number of vehicles, crashes from the narrow lanes, and running the machine that flips the center lane from eastbound to westbound and back. A 30% decline in car volume would let us restore the earlier, safer, more sustainable configuration.
  3. Bus fare revenue would rise. Gelinas, ever the libertarian, worries about the subsidies required to run buses over the bridge, but if she just remembers her supply and demand she can stop worrying.
  4. The state would have more toll revenue. If we can avoid death spiral territory, the toll increase will bring in more overall revenue, which can be used for bridge maintenance or bus subsidies.

Last week Cuomo's chief of staff Larry Schwartz gave some scary numbers about how tolls would have to rise to $12 even if the bridge is not replaced. As with transit, Cuomo and his staff are inflating the costs of alternatives they don't like and lowballing the costs of their preferred alternative. Their cost estimates include the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council's outdated and laughable projections for population, job and driving increases in the area, as well as continuation of the inefficient, homicidal seven-lane bridge configuration. Notably, the projections don't take into account the effect that tolls can have on traffic volumes.

The best thing to do would be to tear down the bridge. It's a cancer in our midst. But if nobody is willing to support tearing it down, the next best thing is to raise tolls without rebuilding the bridge.

Monday, July 23, 2012

What's going to be cut to pay for the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement?

I've been asking this question for a while. Remember that this is a bridge that shouldn't exist, and should be torn down and not rebuilt. But Andrew Cuomo wants to rebuild it, twice as big, and at a huge cost. Who is going to pay for it?


Remember: it has long been established that it is economically impossible to cover the budgeted cost of $5 billion through tolls. If everyone who crosses now paid $15-20 round trip we could do it, but when the tolls get that high, people start doing what they should be doing anyway: working close to home, living close to work, or taking transit. In the topsy-turvy world of road tolls this is a bad thing, because then total revenue declines and the Thruway can't pay the bonds.

Charlie Komanoff has argued that the solution is just to build a smaller replacement bridge, but Cuomo seems to have decided that any plan that doesn't double the width of the bridge is not big enough for his legacy. There's a chance he's expecting that the second span will be cancelled, but not until he's safely elected President.

What's more likely is that there will be some component that is directly paid for out of taxes, like the gas tax, the income tax or the sales tax. It will be paid by the Federal or New York State governments, but either way it will come primarily from people who don't drive across the bridge - and from significant numbers of people who don't drive at all. If we estimate that amount to be $1.4 billion, it will bring the tolls down to $10-12 round trip, as you can see in this modified version of Komanoff's spreadsheet.

As long as the bridge is getting built, there will be some component paid by other taxes; the question is simply how much it will be. The smaller the toll increase, the bigger the share that will have to be borne by taxpayers. Right now, through his unofficial press secretary Fred Dicker, the Governor has signaled that any toll increase will be minimal.

The tabloids have stoked a fierce backlash against toll increases following the most recent Port Authority bridge toll hike. The Governor has been saying, "the bridge will be paid for with tolls," but like his earlier insistence that he won't raise taxes and that he'll veto any redistricting bill that doesn't include an independent commission, it's pretty clear that this is just for show.

What is most disturbing is that, according to Dicker, Assembly Speaker Silver and Senate Minority Leader Skelos have come out against any Thruway toll hike. Silver thinks that more cars and trucks on the Thruway is good. Skelos wants government to be more efficient, but not so efficient that it doesn't replace the bridge. These quotes are about a toll hike that's independent of the bridge financing, aimed at keeping the highway solvent, and they're against that. It's possible that they could change their tune once it comes to paying for the bridge replacement, but it's also possible that they'll repeat these same platitudes.

If Silver and Skelos support rebuilding the bridge but oppose raising tolls to pay for it, and also oppose raising taxes (as Skelos at least is signaling), then there will have to be cuts in other things. I would actually love to see the Kosciuszko Bridge replacement cut, but I'm guessing it will probably be the transit budget that gets cut again. At which time expect to see Silver and Skelos's minions like Hakeem Jeffries, Jeff Klein and Marty Golden come out with the usual protests against transit cuts and fare hikes, all the while decrying the waste at the MTA.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Gonna get fooled again, again?

Three of the reasons that are most commonly cited for rebuilding the Tappan Zee Bridge are the current bridge's narrow lanes, no shoulders and high maintenance costs. But what if, instead of paying five billion dollars to replace it, we could get rid of those problems for a few million? Better yet, what if we could avoid them altogether? Fortunately, that's exactly where we are with the Verrazano Bridge.


The Tappan Zee Bridge used to have wider lanes until 1990, when the six existing lanes were squeezed to make room for a seventh. I don't have crash rates going back that far, but if the bridge builders say that the crash rates are due to narrow lanes, then presumably they were lower before. I also haven't been able to find a breakdown of the maintenance costs, but I'm sure the increased wear and tear from 30,000 more car and truck crossings every day has contributed to the increase. I'm also very curious to know how much it costs to run a machine across the bridge every day moving the barrier from one side of the bridge to the other.

As I've argued before, if we want to stop the carnage and save money, why not get rid of the reversible lane and its expensive machinery and widen the lanes again? Furthermore, can we acknowledge that the reversible seventh lane was a bad idea, and shouldn't be done again? Apparently not. Governor Cuomo has decided to build a new bridge, and he and his Thruway and DOT appointees will ignore any proposal to solve these problems that does not involve a new bridge.

That brings us to the Verrazano Bridge, where Cuomo's MTA is proposing to do exactly the same thing, as reported by Ted Mann in today's Wall Street Journal. In twenty years, will we be hearing that this bridge also has high maintenance costs? Will there be a push to replace it with a bigger bridge because it has "an accident rate double the rest of the system"? How much will the Governor want from our tax dollars when that time comes?

When I first heard about this plan for the Verrazano, I was pleased at the prospect of an HOV lane to speed buses from Staten Island to Manhattan. My first thought was, "yeah, they should extend it all the way through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and up Church Street." But there's a big difference between taking an existing car lane for transit, building a new greenfield, elevated or tunnel transit right-of-way, and shoehorning a new lane into an existing road. With the shoehorn approach comes increased carnage and operating expenses. Given the Cuomo Administration's record of "peeing on our backs and telling us it's raining," and the State DOT's history of this tactic on many roads under multiple governors, we can expect that this will mean new showers in the future.

We have to ask ourselves whether the increased capacity offered by an HOV lane (not a dedicated busway) is worth this tremendous cost, in money and in lives. Staten Island leaders should recognize that it will be much safer and cheaper if the MTA takes a lane for the busway, and that a lot more of their constituents will get to work in comfort with a busway than without one.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Political realities

I'm not a mind reader, so I don't know for sure why the Tri-State Transportation Campaign's Kate Slevin said, "we're not against a new bridge; we can't have BRT without one." But I suspect it has something to do with what John Gromada said in response to a post of mine that was featured in Nyack News and Views: "The political reality is thus that your plan has no chance of ever happening."

Political reality is a handy thing. Everyone seems to have a healthy grasp of it, at least judging by the number of people who have lectured me recently on the political reality of the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement, the fate of the Rockaway Branch of the Long Island Rail Road, and the parking garages proposed for the Northern Branch of the Erie Railroad.

The political reality is obvious to people - until it isn't. For those of you who don't remember five years ago in New York City, we had resigned ourselves to a Department of Transportation that tried to impose arbitrary one-way plans on neighborhoods that didn't want them. Physically separated bike paths were something we could only dream of in our city. Then, on May 14, 2007, Janette Sadik-Khan was appointed Transportation Commissioner, and the political reality changed.

For the Tappan Zee Bridge itself, the political reality for years was that there was an uneasy truce between the highway pushers, the train advocates and the cycling activists bus rapid transit proponents around a (pretty shitty) plan that would include all three. Then one morning Andrew Cuomo calculated that it wouldn't get done in time for him to take credit for it, and presto! all three vanished overnight.

I'm all for taking a realistic view of the political landscape - in fact, last year I criticized Slevin and friends for their lack of appreciation of the politics of the 34th Street Transitway. But there's a big difference between my realpolitik and that practiced by Slevin or Gromada or Dave Zornow: I never rule anything out for good.

As Jarrett Walker is fond of pointing out, physical principles can be absolute and forever, and should constrain your sense of what's possible as you advocate for transit. For example, any vehicle that runs on a road with shock absorbers is going to be more jerky and less comfortable than a vehicle on tracks without them. Politics is different. Politics can change. A political analysis can give you an idea of which strategy is more likely to accomplish your goals, or which battle is worth fighting. It may suggest that at this point there is not enough political support to build a new rail line. What it can't do is tell you for certain that there will never be enough support.

The way to handle political uncertainty is very simple. Rather than saying "we can't have" something, you just say what it would take to get that thing. For example, in order to get "BRT on the Bridge," someone needs to either overcome Cuomo's ambition, or make your plan compatible with it. You can still say that a plan (say, prtonthebridge.com) is so far outside of what's currently being done that it's a waste of time to discuss it unless something big changes.

It may be less satisfying than saying "Never going to happen!" but it's a lot more honest.

Monday, February 13, 2012

We could have "BRT on the bridge" tomorrow

The new site set up by the Tri-state Transportation Campaign is brtonthebridge.org. I happen to prefer my own site, thetappanzeebridgeisacancerinourmidst.com, because nobody but transit advocates gets excited about "BRT," but I'm not opposed to some bus improvements on the bridge. Let's do it! Let's have BRT on the bridge right now!

But wait! Here's Kate Slevin telling Judy Rife that "we're not against a new bridge; we can't have BRT without one." Huh? But I thought that BRT was this cheap, flexible thing. No need to condemn people's homes. No need to pay for expensive rails or big studies. You can do BRT with some cops and a little paint!

The truth is that we could have high occupancy/toll lanes - the bridge component of the "BRT" that was planned in the last round - in place in a very short period of time. Here's how it could be done. Since 1990 the bridge has had a "reversible" lane shoehorned between the three eastbound and three westbound lanes. One of the reasons the bridge maintenance costs are so high is because they include a special vehicle that moves a barrier from one side of the lane to the other.

The Thruway Authority could replace the movable barrier with two fixed barriers, leading to a single toll booth (or two), which would only let in the following vehicles:

- buses
- cars with at least three people
- cars whose drivers are willing to pay an extra toll

It's not strictly necessary to allow high-occupancy vehicles or toll-payers, but it can help deflect an empty lanes attack.

That's all we need. The governor could issue an executive order tomorrow and have the system in place within a week. So why doesn't Tri-State demand BRT on the bridge now? Why are they telling us that we can't have BRT without a new bridge?

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, www.thetappanzeebridgeisacancerinourmidst.com.

Who will stop the Tappan Zee boondoggle?

Last week the Federal Highway Administration released two sets of documents relating to the Tappan Zee Bridge reconstruction project. There wasn't much discussion of the Scope Summary Report, where hundreds of people complained about the way the Federal Government has been handling this project and were completely blown off. That's backward-looking and old news. A lot more attention has been paid to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement because it finds, in the words of an Associated Press writer, "no ecology obstacles" to the plan.

Streetsblog's Noah Kazis has recycled several of my posts with added points, including a critique of the bridge planning under New York State's own Smart Growth law, a more thorough corroboration of my toll calculations by Charlie Komanoff, a report embarrassing the State with its own clumsy denial of Streetsblog's Freedom of Information requests, and a striking illustration of the FHWA's lack of interest in public input: the old outreach offices have been closed.

One of the craziest things about this is that the thing is supposed to cost five billion dollars, and nobody has said where that money will come from. The Governor has floated several different "trial balloons," but in the end declared that it will have to be "publicly financed." In theory this is all in the Governor's budget proposal, but in practice the budget is the usual spaghetti of confusing similarly-named funds and accounts folding endlessly back in on itself; the Tappan Zee Bridge is mentioned once or twice, but not in a way that seems connected with anything.

Despite the fact that lots and lots of people said there should be "transit on the bridge," the FHWA said they wouldn't do more than "not preclude" transit. Transportation Nation's Kate Hinds called New York State Transportation Commissioner Joan McDonald and asked her about this. McDonald's response was interesting:
That is what we have said all along…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. So we are building the bridge to not preclude it in the future. And what that means is the footings will be spread appropriately and there will be enough weight-bearing capability on the bridge to hold transit in the future.

I've highlighted a key phrase that jumped out at me the second time I read it: if the ridership numbers and the fare box recovery ratio warrant the investment. You could read the part about "ridership numbers" as McDonald simply saying she's not going to put the State in a position where it's vulnerable to the Empty Lanes Attack. If they're going to reserve a lane for buses, they want to be able to say that that lane moves enough people to justify keeping private cars out.

The bit about farebox recovery is more troubling. Currently, fares paid by Tappan Zee Express and Orange-Westchester Link riders cover about ten percent of the cost of running those buses. What McDonald is saying here is that it's not "financially feasible" to spend that much money subsidizing bus rides as well as reserving the lanes for buses. Cannily, she doesn't say what kind of farebox recovery ratio would warrant the investment, allowing herself and her successors to dismiss any request for transit.

The troubling part is that McDonald seems to have no clue that roads and transit compete with one another - or possibly to be deliberately ignoring this fact. If we add a lane to the Tappan Zee Bridge (and everyone knows it's going to be at least three lanes), that makes it easier to drive, and lowers the demand for transit. In other words, as long as the government keeps widening the roads and bridges the farebox recovery ratio will never warrant the investment in transit.

McDonald has just flushed any credibility she had left on smart growth issues down the toilet, but what about her boss? Most of the posts about the bridge point the finger at Governor Andrew Cuomo, and clearly he's the one pushing for the bridge to be started this year. It's not hard to figure out why: he wants to have at least one inspiring infrastructure project finished by the time he runs for President in 2016. He doesn't see transit (much less "BRT") as necessary to this bullet point on his resume.

Transit advocates do not have the power to take away this bullet point that Cuomo so desperately seeks, and I can't think of anything we could offer him that would have equal political value. Is there a transit project that would move 150,000 people a day for $5 billion dollars and be finished by 2016 without requiring Cuomo to share the glory with anyone else?

If we want to stop this project, appealing to Cuomo or McDonald will not help. There are a few other avenues, though. Since October, the lead agency on the bridge replacement project has not been the State Department of Transportation, but the FHWA. The FHWA is part of the United States Department of Transportation, headed by everyone's favorite Republican ex-congressman from Peoria, Ray LaHood. LaHood has been actively courting the smart growth and alternative transportation crowd, and seems most passionate when he talks about bike facilities and high speed rail. Why not lobby him and his boss, President Obama? At the very least, every time LaHood shows up to speak at a pro-transit or pro-bike gathering, someone could say to him, "You know, Ray, this Tappan Zee Bridge project is a disaster, and your agency is leading it!" Not out loud, to embarrass him, but quietly, privately, so that he gets the message that people are paying attention and connecting it with him. (You can also mention the eerily similar Columbia River Crossing).

Another possible route of opposition is New York State's traditional system of checks and balances, known informally as "three men in a room." Streetsblog has mentioned that Senate Finance Committee Chair John DeFrancisco expressed frustration with the vagueness of the transportation budget. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has killed boondoggles in the past; would he or Dean Skelos be willing to expend enough political capital to kill this bridge project?

Since both the pro-bridge coalition and the pro-BRT coalition have reserved domain names for their positions, I have set up a website at www.thetappanzeebridgeisacancerinourmidst.com showcasing all the reasons to tear down the bridge and not replace it. Please link and tweet it widely!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

How the Tappan Zee Bridge hurts existing transit

It's become the standard position for environmentalists, transit advocates and anyone else who opposes the Governor's heavy-handed revision of the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement plans: "the new bridge must include transit" (PDF). Most of the people who disagree argue that the bridge should be built right away. Besides myself, at this point only a few, like the Hudson Riverkeeper and Alfred Strasser, say that a replacement bridge may not be the best choice. I think I've convinced Alon Levy too now.

The interesting thing about transit in Bergen, Orange and Rockland counties is that the services that go through the Lincoln Tunnel Exclusive Bus Lane to the Port Authority in Manhattan actually earn back almost all their operating costs in fares. In contrast, all the local services - many of them operated by the same companies under contract - require heavy operating support from the Federal, state and local governments.

This can be easily explained using the Magic Formula for Transit Ridership:

1. Give transit its own right-of-way and good terminals
2. Make it hard to use cars
3. Make it expensive to use cars
4. Profit!

Getting through the Lincoln Tunnel or across the George Washington Bridge by private car is slow and expensive. The XBL and the Port Authority Bus Terminal allow the buses to cut through this, giving them an advantage to compensate for their multiple stops, fixed routes and sometimes inconvenient schedules. Local roads offer no such advantage, so people use their cars whenever they can.

Given this, it is no surprise that buses across the Tappan Zee Bridge (also contracted out to Stagecoach subsidiaries) earn back only ten percent of their operating costs, with the remaining amount paid by the State DOT. I just found a fascinating report (PDF) done by the State DOT in 2005 on transit in Rockland that sheds some light on just how the Magic Formula leads to profitability. The table on page III-54 in particular deserves to be excerpted here:






ServiceTappanzee ExpressCommuter BusFixed Route TOR
WhereTappan Zee Bridge Lincoln Tunnel and George Washington BridgeLocal Rockland service
Operating Expense / Rev. Vehicle Mile$ 5.73$ 5.04$ 5.09
Rev. Passengers / Rev. Vehicle Mile0.570.481.28
Operating Expense / Revenue Passenger$10.04$10.39$ 3.96
Total Op. Revenue / Revenue Passenger$ 0.98$ 8.18$ 0.78

The Tappan Zee Express and the "Commuter Bus" have a lot in common. Both bring commuters from Rockland County to work run using intercity coaches operated by subsidiaries of the Stagecoach Group, at a cost of about five dollars per mile or ten dollars per passenger, and they both carry about half a commuter per mile. The difference is that when Stagecoach operates under contract as the Tappan Zee Express, they only earn an average of 98 cents per passenger. When they operate through the Lincoln Tunnel as Short Line or Red and Tan, they can charge an average of $8.18 per passenger.

Stagecoach can charge that much because people who want to get to Manhattan will pay it. The Tappan Zee Express fare may be set by contract, but if they thought they could make more they'd have cancelled the contract and run service across the bridge without it. It's simple supply and demand: there are enough people willing to pay $7.40 to go from Nanuet to the Port Authority to make it worthwhile, but there aren't enough willing to pay that much to go from Nanuet to White Plains.

People don't want to pay that much for the bus across the Tappan Zee Bridge because it doesn't give them much of an advantage over driving. Or in State DOT-speak, "Operating revenue for this service is impacted by challenging suburban auto-oriented market as well as the low fare structure in contrast to other commuting express services using Over-the-Road Coaches."

But we've got all these commuters who ride buses to Manhattan. Why don't the local buses make any money? They're also operated by Stagecoach and cost about the same per vehicle mile. They get more passengers per vehicle mile, so their expenses per passenger are lower, but they can only charge 78 cents a ride on average. There aren't enough passengers to bring the expenses per passengers down below that amount, and there's not enough demand for them to raise the prices to cover the expenses.

Demand for these local buses is low because the State DOT, Rockland County and the municipal governments have spent the past sixty years building stroads and parking and prohibiting dense mixed-use development - in other words making it easy for these bus commuters to make all their local trips by car and depriving the local buses of their advantages for anyone who owns a car.

Now the Tri-State Transportation Campaign is pushing hard for "BRT on the bridge" (PDF). How would the "BRT" envisioned by Tri-State work under the Magic Formula? It would have its own right-of-way (or close enough if the State tweaks the HO/T parameters properly, which is a big "if" in itself), and if the State doubles the bridge tolls as planned, but the State would make it easier to use cars by widening the bridge. There are other factors like the price of gas, but chances are that any ridership boost will not be enough to make the service self-supporting like the Lincoln Tunnel services, meaning that if the State cries poverty and cuts the subsidy, the bus service would simply vanish, either immediately or after a brief transit death spiral.

Similarly, local bus service is hampered by stroads, parking and sprawl, which are all mandated by local ordinances. The "BRT" envisioned by Tri-State would not help any of this, because it would be sprawl transit, taking commuters from highway park-and-ride to office park and not focusing on walkable downtowns.

The Tappan Zee Bridge is bad for transit, and "BRT on the bridge" would not be any better. If you really care about transit, about walkable downtowns, about preserving open space, about conserving resources and about curbing pollution and carnage, there's only one solution that makes any sense: tear it down and don't replace it.

If you'd like to gently suggest that the Tri-State Transportation Campaign stop promoting "BRT on the Bridge," you can email them at tstc@tstc.org. You can also blog, tweet, or leave comments on their blog or Facebook page.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Five reasons why the Tappan Zee sprawl should be stopped

As I've discussed before, the Tappan Zee Bridge is a sprawl-generating machine. The sprawl created by this bridge in Orange, Rockland, Bergen and Westchester counties is bad for everyone in the area. Here are five reasons why:
  1. Sprawl puts teens, seniors, the poor and the disabled at a disadvantage.
  2. Sprawl increases the pressure for hydrofracking.
  3. Sprawl keeps Nyack, Suffern and the other towns from being Strong Towns with sustainable budgets.
  4. Sprawl adds to pollution
  5. Sprawl kills.
And if you think it's bad now, it will be hell when oil (and shale gas, and electricity) becomes really expensive. Please don't use this post to support an argument for "a new bridge with transit." The bridge we have keeps generating sprawl. Any replacement would generate at least as much sprawl, with or without "transit."

Five things we can do without rebuilding the Tappan Zee Bridge

A lot of the arguments given for replacing the Tappan Zee Bridge present something that we want, or maybe even need, and then offer the bridge as a way of getting that. The dishonesty is that the bridge isn't the only way of getting these things. Here are five examples.

  1. We don't need a new bridge to create jobs. Almost any increase in government spending will put more people to work. Transit projects put more people to work than road projects, so let's spend all the money on transit.
  2. We don't need a new bridge to improve mobility in the region. A wider bridge may help people to move at first, but it will soon be full of cars, and then when the tolls and the price of gas rise, no one will be able to afford to drive across it.
  3. We don't need a new bridge to reduce crashes. The Governor could reduce the crashes tomorrow by getting rid of the seventh lane on the existing bridge. He hasn't, because the politicians have all decided that squeezing a few thousand more cars in is worth the deaths and injuries, and the people don't seem to care.
  4. We don't need a new bridge to accommodate an increase in population. The population is not going to increase according to the moronic linear projections put out by the State DOT. Any added population can be served by more train and bus service.
  5. We don't need a new bridge to build a new linear park. We could build a linear park tomorrow by getting rid of a few lanes on the existing bridge, but the politicians have all decided that squeezing a few thousand more cars in is more important than a park, and the people don't seem to care.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Tappan Zee Bridge and Transit: A look back

This December 15 will be the hundredth anniversary of the completion of the first Tappan Zee Bridge in 1955. In honor of that occasion, we've collected some highlights of the history of the original bridge and its current replacement.


1953: The first concrete caisson is floated into place.

1955: Governor Averell Harriman opens the bridge to traffic.

1970: The Thruway Authority repays the last of its $80 million debt to New York State.

1993: A movable barrier system allows four lanes of traffic to flow in the peak direction.

1999: The I-287 Task Force is formed to explore options to rehabilitate or replace the bridge.

2011: President Barack Obama announces that the replacement of the bridge will be expedited.

2012: Governor Andrew Cuomo announces a deal to include "full corridor Bus Rapid Transit" on the bridge instead of an "emergency access lane."

2017: Governor Richard Brodsky opens the new north span of the bridge to traffic.

2023: Tappan Zee, Inc., raises car tolls from $10 to $15 round trip to make payments on the bridge construction bonds. Gasoline-powered cars are charged $20, but most people drive electric cars using cheap electricity from shale gas.

2027: Governor Eric Ulrich opens the new south span of the bridge to traffic.

2028: Bowing to political pressure, Governor Ulrich opens the "BRT lane" to all cars.

2032: The Historic Tarrytown Village is moved to a parking pedestal in Elmsford to make room for the Tarrytown Water Filtration Plant and the Residences at Sleepye Hollowe.

2038: Bowing to political pressure, Governor Cara Cuomo-Espada opens the bridge shoulders to all cars.

2040: Tappan Zee Shale Gas, Inc. assumes control of New York State for nonpayment of obligations. Car tolls are raised to $25 round trip.

2048: Bowing to political pressure, TZSG President Theodore Gillibrand converts the "little used bicycle/pedestrian path" to a reversible lane. The bridge has to have seven lanes in the peak direction, he argues, because the Thruway is that wide.

2049: The Andrew Cuomo Tappan Zee Task Force is formed to explore options to rehabilitate or replace the bridge.

2054: The Historic Village of Nyack is moved to a parking pedestal in Nanuet to make room for the Nyack Biomass Plant and the Residences at Nyacke.

Note: the previous post envisioned a Tappan Zee without transit, as currently planned.

Friday, December 23, 2011

100 Years of the Tappan Zee Bridge: A Look Back

This December 15 will be the hundredth anniversary of the completion of the first Tappan Zee Bridge in 1955. In honor of that occasion, we've collected some highlights of the history of the original bridge and its current replacement.


1953: The first concrete caisson is floated into place.

1955: Governor Averell Harriman opens the bridge to traffic.

1970: The Thruway Authority repays the last of its $80 million debt to New York State.

1993: A movable barrier system allows four lanes of traffic to flow in the peak direction.

1999: The I-287 Task Force is formed to explore options to rehabilitate or replace the bridge.

2011: President Barack Obama announces that the replacement of the bridge will be expedited.

2017: Governor Richard Brodsky opens the new north span of the bridge to traffic.

2023: Tappan Zee, Inc., raises car tolls from $10 to $15 round trip to make payments on the bridge construction bonds. Gasoline-powered cars are charged $20, but most people drive electric cars using cheap electricity from shale gas.

2027: Governor Eric Ulrich opens the new south span of the bridge to traffic.

2028: Bowing to political pressure, Governor Ulrich opens the "emergency access lane" to all cars.

2032: The Historic Tarrytown Village is moved to a parking pedestal in Elmsford to make room for the Tarrytown Water Filtration Plant and the Residences at Sleepye Hollowe.

2038: Bowing to political pressure, Governor Cara Cuomo-Espada opens the bridge shoulders to all cars.

2040: Tappan Zee Shale Gas, Inc. assumes control of New York State for nonpayment of obligations. Car tolls are raised to $25 round trip.

2048: Bowing to political pressure, TZSG President Theodore Gillibrand converts the "little used bicycle/pedestrian path" to a reversible lane. The bridge has to have seven lanes in the peak direction, he argues, because the Thruway is that wide.

2049: The Andrew Cuomo Tappan Zee Task Force is formed to explore options to rehabilitate or replace the bridge.

2054: The Historic Village of Nyack is moved to a parking pedestal in Nanuet to make room for the Nyack Biomass Plant and the Residences at Nyacke.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Why not a longer "Tappan Zee High Line"?

Everyone knows I've got serious misgivings about the rails-to-trails movement, especially when people pull the rails out of perfectly functional, useful railroad infrastructure. I feel a lot better about roads-to-trails, and there are several good ones. The best is the section of the Long Island Motor Parkway that's been preserved here in Queens. There are other trails that use land taken for roads that were never built. I've walked on the Nassau-Suffolk Greenbelt, which follows an unbuilt section of the Bethpage Parkway. The Briarcliff-Peekskill Trailway in Westchester also uses an old parkway right-of-way.

Back in October when the Governor began his push for the Bridge Reconstruction merit badge, Paul Feiner, Supervisor of the Town of Greenburgh (which includes Tarrytown and Elmsford) suggested leaving the existing bridge standing for use by cyclists and pedestrians. This had been considered in earlier bridge replacement plans, but ultimately rejected in favor of a bike/pedestrian path on one of the two replacement spans. But if, as I've argued, the Tappan Zee Bridge should not be replaced, then Feiner's plan has a shot.
Instead of tearing the existing bridge down, we could keep two lanes for buses and use the rest of the width for a mixed-use path.

My question is, why stop there? The bridge itself is three miles long, but if we're not replacing it then we don't need the loud, polluting highway approaches. They'd just dump cars onto Routes 9 and 9W anyway.

Where the Thruway (Interstate 87) and the Cross-Westchester Expressway (I-287) split in Elmsford is right over the missing link between the two rail-trails that run in the right-of-way of the Old Putnam Line. If we reconfigured the highways so that northbound Thruway traffic turns east on the Cross-Westchester, then we can have the Tappan Zee High Line connect to the South County Trailway (PDF) there. It will also pass right under the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail.

On the Rockland County side, if we terminate the Thruway at the Palisades Parkway, we can extend the Tappan Zee High Line west for a total length of nine miles. It can connect to the Esposito Memorial Trail and the Long Path in Nyack. If we stop the Thruway at the Garden State Parkway, that makes twelve miles. Think of the recreational possibilities!

Of course, those connections assume that we don't reactivate the old Erie Main Line and the Putnam Line, but it might be worth it even so.

To be perfectly honest, with the length and the grades on the current bridge, I'm not sure it would be a pleasant trip - unless maybe we could have a concession for a bus stop, cafe and refreshment stand at the highest point. But it makes a lot more sense than some of the other recent proposals "high lines."

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Rockland County needs Strong Towns, and the bridge won't help

Last week, Comptroller DiNapoli released an audit of Rockland County's finances. Much of the discussion of the audit has focused on the $52 million deficit in something called the "unappropriated fund balance": whose fault it is, and why County officials relied so heavily on the sale of a nursing home that fell through. But the real question is why the deficit appeared in the first place, and whether anything can be done to avoid them in the future. The audit report says,

We found that County officials over-budgeted revenues from sales and mortgage taxes. In years when the national economy showed negative growth, County officials estimated that sales and mortgage taxes (which represent 39 percent of the County’s revenue) would increase by 4 to 6 percent. While the County’s overall expenditures increased by 7 percent in 2007, revenue from sales and mortgage taxes increased by only 3 percent. The County’s sales and mortgage taxes continued to fall short of estimates by 13 percent in 2009, and results of operations for 2010 showed that this revenue source fell short by approximately 6 percent.

Number 3 on their list of five recommendations is:
3. The Legislature and County officials should realistically budget for sales and mortgage tax revenues and/or reduce general fund expenditures to levels that can be financed by recurring revenue sources.

When talk turns to local government financing, I think of the Strong Towns approach. Chuck Marohn and his friends Ben Oleson and Jon Commers have found that sprawl development is really bad for the budgets of local governments. They list the five key features of a Strong Town:

1. Must be near-term financially solvent.
2. Must have the tax base and resources to cover long-term financial commitments.
3. Must have sufficient age diversity so that population will be added at a rate greater than population is being lost.
4. Must have sufficient economic diversity and vibrancy so that businesses are being added at a rate greater than or equal to the rate they are being lost.
5. Must have the courage and leadership to plan for long-term viability.

I haven't delved into the finances of every town in Rockland County, but it sounds like the county at least has made financial commitments that they don't have the tax base and resources to cover. Chuck, Ben and Jon also list ten Placemaking Principles - there's some overlap with the key features listed above, but there are some new strategies for achieving them. Here are three that are particularly relevant for Rockland County:
  • Strong Towns reduce costs associated with land use, transportation and development, and are able to reinvest these savings to strengthen their long-term position in the region and the world.
  • To build an affordable transportation system, a Strong Town utilizes roads to move traffic safely at high speeds outside of neighborhoods and urban areas. Within neighborhoods and urban areas, a Strong Town uses complex streets to equally accommodate the full range of transportation options available to residents.
  • To make transportation systems more efficient and affordable, to create economic opportunity and to enhance the community, neighborhoods in a Strong Town must be mixed use, with properly-scaled residential and commercial development.
If you've ever been on Route 202 in Suffern, Route 9W in Piermont, or pretty much anywhere along Route 59, you've been on what Chuck calls a "stroad":

If you want to start to see the world with Strong Towns eyes and truly understand why our development approach is bankrupting us, just watch your speedometer. Anytime you are traveling between 30 and 50 miles per hour, you are basically in an area that is too slow to be efficient yet too fast to provide a framework for capturing a productive rate of return.
Once you've done that, ask yourself: Which would reduce costs associated with land use, transportation and development: spending five billion dollars on an eight-lane highway bridge that will be expanded to ten, or spending that money rebuilding the rail connections to Newark, Jersey City and New York City?

Finally, when you're done with that, ask yourself: with a brand new bridge encouraging lots of driving, how much would a sprawl-oriented bus project really do to move Rockland away from its unsustainable sprawl and towards a Strong Towns way of life?

To solve the budget problems in Rockland County as, in the rest of the state and the country, as Chuck likes to say: we need to build places of value. We need to start building Strong Towns.

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.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Tappan Zee Bridge replacement is not about jobs

We all have needs, and many of the needs can be satisfied in different ways. For example, everyone needs a certain amount of protein in their diet, and you can get it from beef, chicken, beans or nuts. You could get your protein from barbecued elephant stakes, but most people would agree that it's a wasteful and environmentally destructive way of satisfying that basic need. It's the same with jobs.

Many of the most fervent arguments for the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement project, like this op-ed by Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee and another one by Rockland Business Association President Al Samuels, have focused on "jobs." Jaffee writes,
In addition to a new bridge, our community cannot afford to wait for new jobs. At a time when the state unemployment rate is 8 percent, we cannot waste any opportunity to spur economic growth. Building a new Tappan Zee Bridge is estimated to create up to 150,000 new jobs, a huge boost for our region and state. And by speeding up the process and finally getting a quick date for construction, our community will have these jobs now, when we need them most.
Well, yes, Assemblywoman, if an "opportunity to spur economic growth" is a shitty one, we certainly can waste it, and we should. Not all employment programs are created equal. There are many ways to create jobs, including monetary policy, unemployment insurance and infrastructure spending. You could create jobs by rebuilding the Tappan Zee Bridge, but it's a wasteful and environmentally destructive way of satisfying that basic economic need.

On a basic level, you could pay people to dig holes and fill them up for years, and stimulate the economy that way, but some forms of stimulus are better and others are worse. For years, Smart Growth America has been highlighting data showing that government spending on mass transit projects creates more and better jobs per dollar than road projects.

If you want to create jobs in the Lower Hudson Valley, why not spend it rebuilding the old rail infrastructure? I bet that five billion dollars would be enough to rebuild the tracks on every train line that ever existed in Orange, Bergen and Rockland Counties, double-track them, lower the floor on the West Shore Line, and restore passenger service on all of them. Any leftover money could be spent rebuilding the Putnam Line and NYW&B in Westchester, or digging the Cross-Harbor Rail Freight Tunnel. Tons of good jobs there. No need to rebuild a bridge that has filled the area with sprawl and will only generate more sprawl.