Cuomo exhales after Tappan Zee approval, but that was the easy part

The old Tappan Zee Bridge. (jmd41280 via Flickr)
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Andrew Cuomo says he's relieved, now that the federal government has approved the state's still-amorphous plans to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge.

“One thing I can do that I couldn’t do before is I can exhale,” said Cuomo, during a conference call with reporters today.

Maybe he should hold off, though.

The Federal Highway Administration has approved the state's plans to replace the "functionally obsolete" Tappan Zee Bridge, which spans the Hudson River connecting Westchester and Rockland counties, and the approval was the last step in the federal goverment's environmental review process.

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But that approval was never in much doubt, actually. The federal authorities had already fast-tracked the project, according to Veronica Vanterpool, executive director of the Tri-State Tranporstation Campaign, which has been critical of the bridge's lack of a mass-transit component. (The planned bridge would have the capacity to accommodate a mass-transit component later on.)

"It’s an important decision for the construction to even begin," she said. "But it’s part of the normal process ... I think this is an announcement that was expected by those people following the project."

What's of actual concern, she says, is the question of where the estimated $5.2 billion the planned bridge requires will come from.

"There's no financing plan," she said. "So, sure, construction can begin, but how will that be paid for? And the state still has no idea. And that’s really one of the biggest hurdles."

(Yesterday, one business leader suggested using the proceeds from hydraulic fracturing.)

The state has applied for $2.9 billion in federal funding, and also plans to issue bonds backed by bridge tolls. At the same time, Cuomo has promised to look for other funding mechanisms, to prevent those same bridge tolls from jumping from $3 to $5 now to as much as $14.  

Asked about all of that today, Cuomo's director of state operations, Howard Glaser, said answers would be forthcoming.

"How much does the bridge cost depends on the bidders, and the final procurement," he said. "When we know that, we’ll know more about financing and be able to move our TIFIA loan application through the federal process."

There's also the question of lawsuits delaying the project.

For while the state has committed to installing "bubble curtains" to muffle the underwater noise from pile drivings (underwater noise and vibration are believed capable of killing fish), Riverkeeper has voiced concerns about the river's endangered Atlantic sturgeon, and how the bridge construction will impact its ability to survive.

"We are considering litigation," said Phillip Musegaas, the Hudson River program director for Riverkeeper. "Our basic position is, if the state has not committed to additional measures to reduce impacts to endangered species and the river, then we will go to court."