Bridge Officials Still Mum on Toll Costs for New Span

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P.-1-better--bridge|  by Janie Rosman  |

While tolls on the Thruway system will remain the same through 2015, residents attending last month’s public meeting at Washington Irving Middle School wanted to know what they will be in 2018.

“One of the things we said from the beginning is we had to exercise all financial options before we would talk about what tolls would be,” Thruway Acting Executive Director Robert L. Megna said. “If someone was sitting here last year and told you what tolls would be before we got a $1.285 billion grant, they would have been wrong by a significant amount.”

Deputy Secretary for Transportation Ron Thaniel said the state is “looking at a TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant for the BRT (bus rapid transit) system,” which the transit task force recommended last year. An in-progress application will be submitted this month.

Another person asked about the state’s options for raising the last billion dollars.

“I want to be clear,” Thaniel said. “We are looking at options, as Bob said. Bottom line is, we are keeping our eyes open, and we are talking with Secretary Foxx (Anthony Foxx, US Secretary of Transportation).”

The Thruway Authority Board recently approved a $1.9 billion spending plan that closes a gap identified in the original 2015 budget approved last December. It includes more than $22 million in spending cuts, nearly $44 million in reduced debt service costs, and includes no toll increases for any part of the Thruway system.

“The budget approved by the board today reflects the commitment of the Thruway Authority’s new management team to scrutinize all spending and to take a more conservative approach regarding revenue estimates,” Board Chair Joanne M. Mahoney said.

An estimated $750 million of the $1.285 million in bank settlement funds will go toward the bridge project. The Thruway Authority’s modified 2015 budget addresses this year’s higher-than-expected winter-related costs and gives additional support to statewide capital projects.

Its fiscal year is January 1 through December 31. This time last year it was anticipating $511 million from the Clean Water State Revolving Funds (CWSRF) for the bridge project after its Environmental Facilities Corporation (EFC) unanimously (5 to 0) approved the loan.

In July, the Public Authorities Control Board’s (PACB) three voting members — Megna (then Budget Director), former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), and Senator John DeFrancisco (R-Syracuse) — approved the first installment of $255.725 million at an interest rate of zero percent for up to five years. A second equal amount would carry an interest rate not to exceed four percent for the same term.

The Environmental Protection Agency dampened those plans two months later when it deemed five of the 12 Tappan Zee Bridge-related projects as proposed (totaling $29.1 million) eligible for funding, and said the remaining seven projects as proposed (totaling $481.8 million) were ineligible, a decision the state appealed shortly before Thanksgiving.

EFC Director of Public Information Jon Sorensen said via a statement that the loan, approved by the Environmental Facilities Corporation, the NYS Thruway Authority in addition to the PACB, “will reduce project costs by up to $35 million and help keep future bridge tolls as low as possible.”

Environmental groups Riverkeeper, Inc., Waterkeeper Alliance, and Environmental Advocates of New York also filed a lawsuit to prevent Governor Cuomo’s administration from using federal Clean Water Act funds (including neither the recently diminished loan request nor the remaining $29 million that was approved) for the Tappan Zee Bridge project or for any such project other than their intended use.

Last month the state dropped its appeal per mutual agreements:

(1) The EPA will amend its decision, deeming $1.2 million for the Oyster Bed Restoration and $100,000 falcon nest box relocation eligible for Clean Water Funds, and

(2) The DEC and EFC will withdraw their appeal of the Agency Decision and agree not to pursue further appeals or reviews.

“The environmental measures that are included in the New NY Bridge project will proceed as planned, and we remain committed to building the new bridge in an environmentally responsible manner,” Megna said in a statement.

As a result, the environmental groups discontinued their lawsuit.

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