ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's signature public works project, a $4 billion bridge to be named after his father, is about to begin carrying commuters across the Hudson River in the New York City suburbs.
One span of the future Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge will open to westbound traffic Friday, signaling near-completion of a project to replace the 62-year-old Tappan Zee that has served as the poster child for America's crumbling infrastructure. The second span is scheduled for completion in the spring.
The 3-mile (4.8-kilometer)-long bridge linking Westchester County to the New York State Thruway across the widest point in the Hudson is one of the largest public infrastructure projects underway in the U.S. and a model of the latest engineering. It will take more than 50 million vehicles a year across the river, from Manhattan commuters to truckers looking to skirt the traffic-choked city 25 miles (40 kilometers) to the south.
The construction project, begun by the Thruway Authority in 2013 after decades of political squabbling, still rankles upstate critics who want to know exactly how the state is paying for it.
"Repeatedly we've heard whispers about raising tolls across the Thruway system to pay for a bridge many upstate commuters will never use," said Greg Biryla, executive director of Unshackle Upstate, a coalition of business and trade organizations. "The Thruway is the economic lifeline between our communities. When you increase the cost of that lifeline, you do further damage to the struggling upstate economy."
Abbey Fashouer, a spokeswoman for Cuomo, said upstate residents are not paying for the bridge.
"There has been no upstate toll revenue used to support the construction and financing of the new bridge, and no upstate toll revenue will be necessary to cover any remaining costs as the Tappan Zee currently provides significant funding for the entire Thruway system," she said.
The state has dedicated $2 billion from bank settlements and $1.6 billion from a federal loan to fund the project, according to Cuomo's office. But the Democratic governor said last month that tolls from the entire 570-mile Thruway system will help pay the bridge bills. He has also pledged that Thruway tolls will be frozen through 2020.
E.J. McMahon, president of Empire Center, a conservative think tank, says the Thruway Authority should have increased the bridge toll in anticipation of the project. While other New York City area bridges cost as much as $15, the Tappan Zee is $5 round trip.
Even at $5, the bridge has been a major revenue source for the highway system, with its tolls accounting for about 20 percent of overall revenues, according to Cuomo's office. The Cuomo administration says there are options after 2020 that could offset tolls, like the possibility of additional state resources or future settlement dollars.
While upstate commuters may never use the new bridge, they'll get some use out of the old one. The Thruway Authority is giving away portions of the bridge's deck and its moveable barrier system. Eight counties have requested some of the 150 deck panels to be salvaged for reuse in other bridges.