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Federal Fast-Track Process Strips Transit Component From Tappan Zee

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We reported yesterday that the Obama administration had selected 14 infrastructure projects, including five transportation projects, to put on the fast track for construction. We mentioned that there were early warnings from transit advocates that at least one of these projects might not go exactly as planned. Noah Kazis at Streetsblog NYC looked deeper into those concerns. This is an updated version of his original report.

For nine years, the state of New York has been studying how to replace the aging Tappan Zee Bridge. The bridge, which is more than 50 years old, requires ever more expensive repairs to stay structurally sound and was never intended to carry the volume of traffic that pours over it every day. Since 2002, an extensive public process has led to the development of four alternative plans for the Tappan Zee and the I-287 corridor. Each of them would rebuild the bridge, widen the roadway and include both a new Metro-North commuter rail line and bus rapid transit service across the bridge.

Even after the extensive public process and environmental review, however, those transit components could end up on the scrap heap. The Obama administration selected the Tappan Zee replacement yesterday as one of 14 major infrastructure projects for federal fast-tracking. But as a condition for selecting the Tappan Zee for "streamlining," the federal Department of Transportation told New York officials to postpone the transit components, according to the New York Times. Instead, New York State DOT will be tasked with building a wider, eight-lane bridge (an increase from seven lanes) "to which mass transit could be added in the future." The decision from U.S. DOT followed personal lobbying from Governor Andrew, who urged Obama's chief of staff, William Daley, to select the Tappan Zee project.

Postponing the construction of the transit components means that New Yorkers could be left with a major highway expansion that skirts the entire public review process. This would run against the four alternatives that have already been vetted, and it threatens an indefinite delay for any dedicated transitway on the Tappan Zee.

"If transit isn’t added now, we worry it never will be," said Kate Slevin, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

Including transit on the bridge ran into some local political resistance this summer. This July, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino called for the removal of transit from the plans for the bridge in order to lower costs and speed up construction. As the Tri-State Transportation Campaign reported at the time, the bridge and highway components of the project are projected to cost $8.3 billion. Building the bridge with rail would add $6.7 billion, while the bus system would cost around $1 billion. Astorino's office told Streetsblog that they hadn't heard that the transit component had been postponed and that it was too early for any design to have been selected.

Transportation and environmental advocates called for President Obama and Governor Andrew Cuomo to commit to building transit at the same time as the highway is rebuilt, even if only the bus service is installed to start.

"This raises concerns that the state may be missing a once in a lifetime opportunity to reduce traffic and greenhouse gas emissions and create a transit backbone for future development in the Hudson Valley," said Slevin. She noted that past promises to add transit to bridges at a later date -- a similar pledge was made for the George Washington Bridge -- rarely materialized.

"Clearly, the Tappan Zee Bridge needs replacing -- and the sooner, the better. But let’s not forget that a key reason for the bridge’s poor condition is overuse, partly because there are few attractive mass transit alternatives to driving," added Dan Hendrick, the communications director for the New York League of Conservation Voters. "Commuters and local residents have been calling for mass transit to be added to the bridge for decades, and bus rapid transit represents exactly the kind of smart, sustainable infrastructure investments that will help New York’s environment and economy. We strongly encourage the Obama and Cuomo administrations to sharpen their pencils and ensure that bus rapid transit keeps pace with the roadway replacement on the new Tappan Zee Bridge."

According to the state's own website, the transit components are included in order to "help minimize corridor travel delay, reduce travel times, provide travel choices, improve local and regional mobility, foster economic growth and improve air quality."

Added Slevin: "Since 2002, hundreds of residents, civic leaders, and local elected officials have worked together to develop a list of alternatives for a bridge replacement. There has consistently been support for transit to be included as part of the project, which is why all five options currently being studied in the state environmental review (except the 'No Build' alternative) include transit. None of those alternatives studied by the State Department of Transportation included a bridge replacement without a transit component."

Streetsblog Capitol Hill reported Tuesday that the Obama fast-track process seems to favor road maintenance and transit projects rather than wider highways, and that it won't skirt environmental reviews. If a transit component is restored to the Tappan Zee project, it would be a good fit for such a program. Without transit, however, the Tappan Zee will be exactly the kind of sprawl-generating boondoggle that Obama is trying to avoid.

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