"The development and phase-in of a coordinated regional tolling strategy that includes all key bridges and statewide roads, especially the parkway system, could provide funds for projects like the Tappan Zee Bridge."
That could mean new tolls on the currently free-for-all Sprain Brook, Bronx River and Taconic Parkways, as well as an increase to the $5 toll on the southbound side of the Tappan Zee.
State officials began discussing a replacement for the span, which was built to last for 50 years and is now 55 years old, in 1998. But it was only in 2008 that officials released a vision for the new bridge, a $16 billion project that would include lanes reserved for an express bus line from Suffern to Port Chester and high-speed commuter trains that would run from the upper Hudson Valley to Grand Central.
Last month, the group appointed to oversee the design of the new bridge announced it had narrowed down a number of proposals to two distinct plans. One would see the construction of a double-decker bridge, with the lower deck carrying trains. The second plan is to build a wider bridge with train tracks running down the middle.
Both designs allow for the construction of a new span that would include space for high-speed rail to be built in the future, instead of forcing the state to pay for the entire project at once.
But the recent forward momentum of the development process has been blunted by a complete lack of funding for the bridge and little consensus on sources for the billions of dollars. After closing most of a $9 billion deficit this year, state officials are facing up to $45 billion in budget gaps over the next three years.
The fiscal woes have created uncertainty for the state Department of Transportation, the agency leading the Tappan Zee project. The department's five-year, $26 billion capital budget was slashed this year to a two-year, $7 billion plan. A spokeswoman for the DOT did not return calls seeking comment.
Harriet Cornell, the chair of the Rockland County Board of Legislators, has been heavily involved with the ongoing plans for most of this decade. She said the taboo subject of financing has never been properly discussed.
"So much time has gone into planning for commuter rail that may never come to pass because of its enormous expense," Cornell said. "There really needed to be a better recognition of the realities, not only in this current economic climate, but of the limited resources even five or eight years ago."
Cornell added, "We have had hints about where the funding might come from, but none of it," including tolls, taxes and higher registration fees, "is very palatable and no real plan has been put forth."
On the same day as Ravitch released his report, Gov. Paterson told a radio news host that the state was looking across the Hudson to New Jersey for help in replacing the "decaying" bridge.
"Because it's going to cost $10 to $14 billion to [replace] it, if we designated the Port Authority lines north, that might be a deal that New Jersey is interested in," Paterson said, referring to the jurisdiction of the Port Authority, a bi-state agency that oversees a number of bridges and tunnels.
"If both states shared on the resources, it could get done. Time is running out [and] before there's a major catastrophe, I would think we would want to do this."
The office of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie did not return calls seeking comment. The cost-cutting Republican freshman recently rejected $3 billion in federal funding for a high-speed rail project while voicing support for a proposed extension of the New York City subway to Seacaucus.
State officials also are hoping to secure federal funding for the project, but no specific grants have been announced. President Obama is pushing for a $50 billion investment in infrastructure projects, though it's still not clear how Republican control of the House of Representatives will affect the proposal.
Phil Ferguson, the finance manager for the Tappan Zee project, recently acknowledged that the state will have to cobble together funds from a number of sources.
"There will need to be multiple funding resources," Ferguson said at an October forum hosted by Cornell, the Rockland Board of Legislators chair. "There's no single source that can pay for the whole thing. It's unrealistic to think we can get 100 percent federal funding for project. We have a lot of challenges ahead of us."
While the state scrambles to find funding for the Tappan Zee replacement, it's pouring millions into ongoing repairs on the existing span. A project that began in 2007 will see 28 percent of the metal plates, or decks, that make up the bridge be replaced by the winter of 2012. The state has already spent nearly $250 million on the repairs, according to the Thruway Authority.
Gov.-elect Andrew Cuomo, who toured the bridge earlier this month, said that the repairs are necessary for the existing bridge, which will likely be carrying cars for another decade and possibly longer.
"Even if you decided tomorrow that you were going to build a replacement bridge, you would still need to keep this bridge safe for a number of years," Cuomo said. "So it's really not 'either/or' [replace or repair] at this point. You're going to have to repair and that's what they're in the midst of doing now."
The Tappan Zee was designed to carry fewer than 100,000 cars per day, but routinely handles more than 150,000 now. The bridge was built in the early 1950s during the Korean War, and a shortage in building materials meant that a sturdier bridge couldn't be built. The George Washington Bridge, for example, opened in 1931 and was designed to last 150 years.
According to state inspections of the Tappan Zee Bridge, one of the biggest structural issues is the deterioration of the wooden pilings, which are beams submerged in the Hudson River that hold up the bridge. The pilings have been eroded by the water, expanded and contracted by extreme weather and chewed into by waterborne worms.
Cornell said she'd like to see continued input by citizens and municipal officials to ensure that the mega-project is on the right track.
"Some individuals have played a very active role in preventing adverse impact on their communities and the environment," she said.
"There has to be a better way of working together on these important regional projects. It's very disappointing to see that the metro region does not have a better and more useful transportation system."?
Officials working on the replacement project are expected to announce the final design sometime in the spring of 2011.