Democrat and Chronicle from Rochester, New York on October 18, 2015 · Page A33
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Democrat and Chronicle from Rochester, New York · Page A33

Rochester, New York
Issue Date:
Sunday, October 18, 2015
Page A33
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DemocratandChronicle .com Sunday,October18,2015 Page33A NYState the Thruway did not have to issue bonds t his year, state officials say. The $300 m illion reduction in needed revenues by 2 018, coupled with plunging gas prices, could translate to a lower-than-expected toll at least for the next few years and provide some political cover for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose commitment to proving New York can still build big things propelled the project, according to economists and political observers. Down from $11? Three years ago, transportation econ- o mist Charles Komanoff, who has made a study of the bridge financing plan, predicted that the toll for a new bridge would come in around $11or more. He now thinks it will be considerably less but is reluctant to pin down a precise figure until more details of the financing plan come out. “He’s a lucky guy,” Komanoff said of Cuomo. “The financial-settlement money plowed into the Thruway Authority will enable him to reduce the amount of debt from building the bridge. And the plunge in gas prices is going to bump up the volume of cars on the Tappan Zee. B oth changes shrink the toll hike.” Some 138,000 cars cross the Tappan Zee every day, contributing nearly 20 percent of the Thruway’s annual toll revenue. As of the end of August, traffic totals on the bridge were up 1percent over the same period last year, from 16,736,326 to 16,929,776, Thruway figures show. J ust how high will the toll go and when will it go up? And will it increase incre- m entally in the coming years? “TBD,” a Thruway Authority spokeswoman wrote in response to a Journal News query about when the state antici- p ates revealing what the new toll will be. Efforts by a new Thruway management team to “take the blade to the fat” is asignal that officials are committed to cutting costs and keeping tolls low, said K en Girardin, a policy analyst for the E mpire Center for Public Policy. But, Girardin said, he’s still not convinced they can pull it off because their future budget projections factor in deficits. “They’re going to try their darndest b ut, at this point, they’re projecting def- i cits within two years,” he said. State officials have acknowledged that a toll hike will be needed to repay bonds the Thruway Authority issued to aid in its financing. All they will say is t hat tolls won’t be raised this year on the b ridge or across the Thruway, and there are no plans to increase tolls across the Thruway to pay for the bridge. Much is on the line for the region’s economy, as well as the political fortunes o f a governor who pushed a bridge project that bogged down in cost concerns during prior administrations. “The Tappan Zee Bridge is the lifeblood of our community,” said state Sen. David Carlucci, D-New City. “We were b orn out of the TZB.”A higher toll could affect the economies of Westchester and Rockland counties and the residents whose daily lives are intertwined with a b ridge that,when it opened in 1955, transformed a region, turning Rockland from a farming community to a bustling N ew York City suburb whose population has more than tripled since 1950 to approximately 330,000. At $5 per round trip, less with an E- ZPass discount, the toll for the Tappan Zee Bridge is still a relative bargain compared to the $14 hit drivers take to c ross the Hudson 20 miles to the south at t he George Washington Bridge. But a toll that’s too high might force some to think twice about that drive f rom Pearl River to catch a movie in Tarrytown, or that trip from White Plains to catch a Rockland Boulders game. I n August 2012, the governor vowed to create a task force that would offersug- gestions to keep the toll low and investi- g ate other financing sources for the bridge. That hasn’t happened yet. T he task force’s work has been put on hold while the state tries to come up with financing alternatives. I t’s been a predictable, don’t-show- your-cards strategy from a second-generation governor who knows his way a round the political poker table, observers say. And tolls, like taxes, have a way o f turning the public against you very quickly, they add. “ A toll is in your face every day,” said Philip Plotch, the author of“Politics A cross the Hudson,”a critical look at the Cuomo administration’s effort to build a replacement for the aging bridge. “Every single day drivers are going to see i t.” Political hot potato Cuomo would not be the first govern or to tip-toe his way around the hot-butt on issue of tolls. His predecessors, wary of angering commuters, all refused to back congestion pricing, a move transportation experts said would ease the daily miles-long backups that snake a long the bridge approaches at rush h our. “The idea of raising peak-period tolls on the Tappan Zee Bridge was discussed in every governor’s office from Mario Cuomo to Andrew Cuomo, but none of t hem were ready to implement congest ion pricing (except for commercial vehicles) or eliminate the Tappan Zee Bridge commuter discount,” Plotch writes in his book. In 2012, when one of the governor’s t op aides suggested at a public meeting that the toll could go as high as $14, the governor shot it down. “At the end of the day, we have to make tolls affordable,” Cuomo said then. The projectwas pitched at a time w hen the state’s unemployment rate was hovering around 8 percent and the call for new jobs — backed by labor unions at sometimes raucous town hall meetings — drowned out the discussion about tolls. Reality of finances Toll increases remain the only viable way to raise enough revenue to repay the bonds the Thruway Authority floated to finance the largest infrastructure project in North America. But just how will t he governor define affordable? A low-interest $1.6 billion federal loan secured in 2013, and the bank settlement money, “will help us meet Gov. Cuomo’s m andate to keep tolls as low as possible on the new bridge,” said Thruway Authority Executive Director Bob Megna. U nder the terms of the federal loan, the Thruway Authority won’t begin paying back the $1.6 billion it owes until 2 023, five years after the bridge opens. As of July, the state Thruway Authority, w hich operates the Tappan Zee, has paid out $1.58 billion to the bridge’s developer, Tappan Zee Contractors, a Thruway s pokeswoman said. Lawmakers say they are frustrated by the lack of information coming out of t he governor’s office on the toll-hike issue. They say they’d like a chance to w eigh in on a range of issues, such as dis- counts for Rockland and Westchester drivers. B ut political observers say Cuomo w ould not be doing himself any favors by broaching the subject now. “He doesn’t have to create an issue w hen he doesn’t have to,” said Gerald Benjamin, a political science professor at SUNY New Paltz. “No politician wants t o create a burden without a benefit. And he doesn’t know what the burden is going to be yet. He wants the discussion to be f ocused on ‘Look at this magnificent bridge. Everyone said New York c ouldn’t build big things and look what he did.’” Cuomo’s critics say the strategy does a disservice to the people who will be fronting the money for the bridge. “It’s totally a political strategy,” said V eronica Vanterpool, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Camp aign, a watchdog group. “They really don’t want to deal with the backlash. The g overnor is playing politics with the taxpayers.” A misstep on the toll issue could damage his political prospects, said Jeanne Zaino, an author and political science professor at Iona College in New Roc helle. “In the end, if the cost is enormous, he could find himself with a frustrated citizenry on his hands,” Zaino said. Commuter discounts likely Carlucci, in anticipation of a higher toll, has proposed a four-pronged plan that would help the state go aftertoll cheats, create discounts for local comm uters and tax credits for others. C uomo has already expressed support for a “resident discount” similar to a program for Staten Island residents who use the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. “There ought to be a local preference, a significant discount,” said state Ass emblyman Tom Abinanti, D-Mount Pleasant. “The downstate region has been subsidizing the cost of the entire Thruway for years.” Any effort to try to spread the cost of b ridge construction across the Thruway system is likely to run into opposition from upstate drivers and groups representing truckers. “There are all kinds of rumors out there and one of them is that,” said Kend ra Hems,president of the New York State Motor Truck Association. “As an industry, from day one, we’ve always seen the need to rebuild the bridge but the f act that it moved forward without a financial plan has been a concern of ours.” Cuomo’s future Cuomo is likely to enlist the support of local lawmakers by pushing for a discount for residents of Westchester and Rockland, Zaino said. “He’s astute enough and politically k nowledgeable that he would find a way t o lessen the hit they might take,” she said. Cuomo won’t be up for re-election un- t il 2018. Winning a third term would be a rare feat that would place him in the same company as his father. But the beg inning of the election cycle for that bid would start some 30 months from now, long after the first span opens to traffic. A nd the federal loan will come due long after that. “ I think it’s going to be a real timing issue. If he runs for a third term and the (toll) number comes out close to election h e may have some trouble,” Zaino said. “Infrastructure will be one of his calling cards as he goes forward and anything t hat taints that record is going to be a problem for him.” Toll Continued from Page 25A PETER CARR/THE JOURNAL NEWS Cars pull into the toll booths in Tarrytown after crossing the Tappan Zee Bridge on Aug. 27. Cuomo would not be the first governor to tip-toe his way around the hot-button issue of tolls. His predecessors, wary of angering commuters, all refused to back congestion pricing, a move transportation experts said would ease the daily miles-long backups that snake along the bridge approaches at rush hour. The people whose livelihoods depend on cars criss-crossing the Hudson River have a conflicted relationship with the Tappan Zee Bridge. While the bridge may insure a steady stream of across-the-river customers, it usually means they’ve also had to contend with maddening traffic tie-ups that m ight dissuade them from coming back next time. “ The bridge is a double-edged sword,” restaurateur Peter X. Kellysaid one recent afternoon at his Restaurant X in C ongers. “Traffic is a problem in partic- u lar on Friday evenings and Sunday evenings going the other way. Those are big d ays for a suburban restaurant.” K elly is hoping a new bridge might, as promised, solve some of the region’s legendary traffic snarls. And while Kelly thinks a higher toll could lead to a small drop-off in customers at his restaurants, he has faith that foodies will still make the trip for his unique lineup of entrees like grilled baby lamb with mascarpone polenta. Nearly three years after construction began on a new Tappan Zee Bridge, Kelly i s just one of many business leaders starting to ponder the impact that a like- l y toll hike will have on their bottom line. Rockland Boulders’president Ken Lehner said the grumbling he hears f rom fans now is about bridge traffic. T hey tell him they’d rather come to weekend games when the traffic isn’t so b ad. H e’s hoping that fans east of the Hudson will budget for the higher toll in exchange for a quicker ride to Provident Bank Park in Pomona. Lehner’s concerns about a toll hike run more to the impact it will have on Boulders staff, many of whom are in their first jobs. Crossing the bridge every day will take a sizable bite out of their pay every week, he said. TheJacob Burns Film Centerin P leasantville has carved out a niche showing foreign and independent films. A spokeswoman for the center said it wasn’t clear Rockland fans will continue to the make the trek if the toll goes up. “ In general, most people won’t pay a h igh toll to go to the movies,” Abby Popper said. L ocal business groups are convinced t hat if traffic tie-ups ease, more opportunities will open up on both sides of the river. “The trip is going to be quite different,” said Al Samuels, president of the Rockland Business Association. “It’ll be amuch better ride across.” About 25 percent of customers at Kelly’s three Rockland restaurants, which include Xaviar’s and Freelance Café in Piermont, come from Westchester. T hat’s down from 35 percent a few years ago. About 15 percent of his customers at X 20 in Yonkers come from Rockland. “If it’s an easier commute to the restaurants, the potential is good that we’ll s ee an increase,” Kelly said. He under- s tands the impact a rising bridge toll can have on your wallet: He often crosses the T appan Zee four times a day. Businesses brace for Tappan Zee bridge tolls THOMAS C ZAMBITO TZAMBITO@LOHUD.COM AND KHURRAM SAEED KSAEED@LOHUD.COM

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