Don’t Build a New Tappan Zee Bridge

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By Stephen Smith

The Tappan Zee Bridge up the Hudson River from New York City should never have been built in the first place. Spanning three miles between Rockland County in the west and Westchester County in the east, about 20 miles north of Times Square, the bridge is built at one of the widest points in the Hudson, defying basic precepts of good engineering.

The bridge was built to suit New York politicians, who didn't want to have to share the bridge with New Jersey. If it had been built south a few miles, as geography dictates, it would have connected two states and been under the control of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Now the bridge is congested with traffic and, in its old age, has become expensive to maintain. So New York has decided to replace it with a new, wider bridge, at a cost of $5.2 billion.

The $500 million maintenance bill that the bridge racked up over the past decade is a lot of money, but not nearly as expensive as a replacement. And the new bridge's price tag is also hugely out of proportion with similar projects abroad.

Blogger Alon Levy points out that the Øresund Bridge between Denmark and Sweden, for example, cost about the same amount in inflation-adjusted dollars, despite being much longer and more complex. Its bridge spans five miles (compared to the Tappan Zee's three), and the money also paid for a 2.5-mile tunnel beneath the strait and another 2.5 miles of roadworks on either side of the bridge-tunnel complex.

So why is the New York project going forward? Governor Andrew Cuomo has made it a personal mission.

"His approach really expedited the process," Putnam County Executive MaryEllen Odell told the Journal News. "If he wasn’t such a communicator on this project, we would probably be nowhere near" this phase.

And with good reason. Despite the rhetoric about the current bridge being past its expiration date and near collapse, it is nowhere near the most pressing safety concern in the state.

According to the Federal Highway Administration's National Bridge Inventory, the Tappan Zee is rated as "functionally obsolete," but not "structurally deficient." The latter relates to the soundness of the physical structure, while the former is a traffic engineering designation.

"Functionally obsolete," the New York Department of Transportation writes, "refers to a bridge’s inability to meet current standards for managing the volume of traffic it carries, not its structural integrity." And that's the key issue here: Replacing the bridge will mean having 10 wide highway lanes instead of seven narrow ones, reducing commute times from Rockland to Westchester (for now) and fueling more suburban sprawl over time.

Two of the lanes on the new bridge are now supposed to be reserved for buses. If they are given over to general traffic, a possibility that the Cuomo administration hasn't ruled out, the new bridge will tack on an extra three lanes of auto traffic to the current Tappan Zee's seven. If environmentalists think New York suburban sprawl is bad now, just wait until there's a new 10-lane bridge across the Hudson.

The bridge has been a sprawl machine ever since it was completed in 1955, ushering in a wave of suburban building in formerly rural Rockland and Orange Counties. Transit activists are upset that the Cuomo administration ditched plans to add commuter rail on the bridge, but they should really be upset about the addition of any east-west travel capacity across this point on the Hudson.

A rail crossing 20 miles north of Manhattan was questionable from the start. The New York counties west of the Hudson are irredeemably auto-oriented, and Westchester isn't much better. A rail link would have been expensive and would likely have done little to get suburbanites out of their cars.

There is a better option for improving the lot of commuters from Rockland County. Instead of expanding east-west road capacity, the state should look at north-south rail options. The region has a number of old rail lines that could be returned to passenger service for a fraction of the cost of a new bridge. These north-south links between suburban Rockland County and more urbanized parts of northern New Jersey and ultimately Manhattan would serve commuters far better than a wider Tappan Zee.

The Tappan Zee project isn't a bridge to nowhere, but that shouldn't be the minimum standard. If Cuomo really wants to serve the people of Rockland County, he should call off his panel of starchitects and balloon-animal sculptors and look for more cost-effective alternatives.

(Stephen Smith  is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York, who covers land use and transportation and a contributor to the Ticker blog. Follow him on Twitter.)

Read more breaking commentary from Bloomberg View at the Ticker.

-0- Sep/28/2012 17:11 GMT