Saturday, October 24, 2009

Other Tappan Zee Bridge possibilities

In my post on the Tri-State Transportation Campaign's strategy for redirecting the Tappan Zee replacement and expansion towards transit and transit-oriented development, I wrote that, yes, I can see the strategy, and if it works it could transform Rockland from New York's answer to Raleigh, NC into a place where someone might actually want to walk around, with downtowns that function. If it works.

What if it doesn't work? Well, last year the State DOT split the environmental impact studies into a "highway phase" and a "transit phase." Of course, the highway phase comes first, and the transit phase may never happen. Tri-State's own intern, Paul Murphy, warned about the possibility. It's a trick that's been pulled many times.

If the transit phase never comes to pass, we'll have a bridge that's five lanes in each direction including one for "high occupancy/toll" vehicles, and there will probably still only be 1500 bus passengers per day. This would raise the private-auto mode share from 98.3% to 99.7%. It will probably also cost $23 billion dollars, a truly staggering amount, of which only $3.3 billion has been found.

Tri-State's Steven Higashide writes about finding federal money as though there's a limitless supply. There isn't. Even though the feds can theoretically print money, they are constrained by the influence of budget hawks, and the share that any given state gets is limited by inter-regional power plays. That means that this $20 billion has to come from somewhere. It will probably come from transit funds, including money that would otherwise have been available for the Second Avenue Subway, Metro-North to Penn Station, citywide BRT, Northeast Corridor upgrades, and every other deserving project you can think of. Like Boston's Big Dig, this could wind up sucking the cash out of every transit project for years, leaving us unable to build anything but a series of unconnected, slow, inefficient bus tunnels.

Even if, as Higashide writes, funding could come from user fees like Thruway tolls, parking fees or gas taxes, those fees could also potentially be used to fund transit, but would not be available if they're taken by the Tappan Zee Bridge project. Some of the other options are much worse: tax increment financing districts and income taxes would take money from people who may not even drive.

What bothers me a little bit is that it seems like Tri-State is actually trying to help the State DOT to find funding for this project. It's true that the transit costs are slightly more than half: $8.9 billion out of the total $16 billion estimated in preliminary financials (PDF). So you might expect people to feel that transit advocates ought to find some of the cash.

But let's look at another possibility: what if nobody can find enough funding and the bridge never gets built? If no one pays for anything, it would eventually just be condemmed, and shut down for years like the Poughkeepsie Bridge. But if we can find $3.3 billion, that's enough to cover the cost of the rehab. And if transit advocates can find another $2.5 billion, it would pay for a fully grade-separated busway from Suffern to Port Chester.

Commenter "Anon" on the Tri-State blog doesn't think that BRT on the existing bridge would fly. "You are not going to get the Suburban populations of Rockland and Westchester to give up a general use lane to bus only especially considering the current backups." At this point, probably not.

But what would happen, land-use-wise, if we did nothing? Would these counties continue to sprawl? I doubt it. Sprawl needs roads to survive. If you don't build any more road capacity, it will stagnate and fester. If you take away road capacity, it will wither. Westchester and Rockland have pretty much run out of room, and will have to densify if they get any more population growth. Since the general consensus is that the price of gasoline is going to go up, we'll probably see more people switching to transit and moving from sprawl to walkable neighborhoods, either in Rockland or elsewhere. Finally, whatever form the ARC tunnel takes, it will make commuting by train from Rockland much easier, fostering transit-oriented development there. Without the bridge widening, a constituency for transit will grow steadily until there is broad-based support for funding and building a real solution. That possibility is the most promising to me.

It all hinges on whether funding for the $7.1 billion in highway components will be found. If the State DOT finds it, the best position for Tri-State to be in is the pleasant helper; they can then envelop and redirect. If the State DOT doesn't find the money, all Tri-State has to do is to wait and be ready to influence Plan B.

But what if it is Tri-State's help that gets the funding? Between the overall cost and the uncertainty of the transit component, I worry that this project will do more harm than good. While it's certainly impressive to get the State DOT to support transit-oriented development workshops, I don't think that those are worth the downsides. It's a very dangerous game that Tri-State is playing, and I sure hope they have an ace or two up their sleeves that I don't know about.

1 comment:

AsianTrains said...

It all depends on whether Tri-State's members are willing to aggressively use the political leverage they gain by finding actual money to do something. A lot of time transit activists are too passive. Many are looking for permission to be involved in the political process.

If there are members of Tri-State who are willing and able to consistently put pressure on elected officials and local bureaucrats over a long period of time, they should take risks. If they are thinking of getting money for someone in hopes that they will be rewarded, then they are going to be disappointed.