Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Tappan Zee Bridge: Money Pit, or Giving Tree?

I want to correct something that I wrote last week. I said, "even though the Thruway spends $30 million a year to maintain the bridge, and that number is rising every year, the tolls bring in $50 million." The tolls are still bringing in $50 million a year, but in 2009, according to Phil Ferguson, then the Finance Study Project Manager, "the bridge requires $130-150 million annually to operate and maintain, which is much more than it generates." Similar figures have been repeated in the media lately.

Given the number of times that we've heard about the high maintenance costs of the current bridge, a natural question is what the maintenance costs of the replacement bridge might be. Surprisingly - or perhaps not - this figure is a bit hard to come by. There's nothing in the scoping packet about it. The only figure I was able to find was on Page S3 of the Executive Summary of the Rehabilitation vs. Replacement analysis, where the "Present Value (150-year) Maintenance Cost" for a slightly larger bridge is estimated at $700 million. I'm not a finance expert and I haven't figured out how to get from that to estimated annual costs, but if we just divide the PV total by 150 years we get $4.67 million a year. Even if that doesn't include the cost of police, tolls, etc., it's still a lot lower than the $130 that's currently claimed, and the $20 million that the Authority paid for maintenance when the bridge was newer.

No wonder the Governor wants to replace it - and probably to spin it off as an independent authority, or even a separate for-profit corporation. The bridge is actually a huge drain on the Thruway budget, and part of the urgency comes from the desire to get out from under that burden. That said, it's really pretty rotten of Upstaters to take from the bridge when it was running a surplus and not want to chip in when it's running a deficit. It's like the Giving Tree or something.

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